Everyone knows what a terrible year 2020 was — especially “American Fiction” writer-director Cord Jefferson. But that was also the year where he discovered the book that became the basis for his acclaimed, Oscar-contending satire.
Jefferson discussed the origins of his film as part of TheWrap Screening Series this past Friday alongside “American Fiction” cast members Sterling K. Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, Erika Alexander and John Ortiz.
“I had a really huge professional failing in 2020, where this TV show that I thought was going to get on the air and was confident would go got killed at the last minute,” Jefferson told TheWrap awards editor Steve Pond.
Frustrated with the setback and unsure of where his career was headed, Jefferson started reading and eventually came across Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure.” It tells the story of a frustrated English professor who, angered with how his writing career has stalled while books with narratives depicting Black characters in poverty and crime enjoy success, writes his own novel satirizing such stereotypes.
It’s frustration that Jefferson knew all too well. Having been a journalist before going into film and TV, he was tired of being asked by editors to write about the racist murders of Black people like Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor, and that followed him into screenwriting.
“Three months before I found ‘Erasure,’ I had received a note on script from an executive who told me that I needed to make a character ‘blacker,’ and it came through an emissary,” Jefferson said. “This executive was afraid to tell me this to my face, and I said to the emissary, ‘I will indulge that note, as long as this person sits in front of me and tells me what it means to be ‘blacker.” And the note went away.”
But the professional struggles of “Erasure” protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison were just the beginning. Cord was also amazed at how much he saw himself in Monk’s relationship with his family.
In the novel and in “American Fiction,” Monk struggles to take care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, especially after the death of his sister. At the same time, he tries to mend bridges with his gay brother, who does little to help care for their mother.
“I have two older brothers. We have a strange trio sibling dynamic, where it’s sometimes we’re closer, other times, we’re more distant. We have a very overbearing father figure who looms large in our lives, and I’m sure will after he’s gone,” Jefferson said.
“My mother didn’t die of Alzheimer’s, but she died of cancer about eight years ago,” Jefferson continued, “and one of my older brothers, like Tracee in the film, was the one living at home and felt the responsibility to take care of her during that time. And then I eventually moved home toward the end of her life to take care of her.”
That connection to the story convinced Jefferson that he had to direct “American Fiction,” as well as write it. The film marks Jefferson’s directorial debut, and he said he was “terrified” to do it, as he was unfamiliar with many of the technical aspects of directing.
“I felt like I knew the story that I was trying to tell with these characters and knew what Monk was going through on a fundamental, molecular level,” Jefferson said. “And I felt like as long as I know that, that can serve as my roadmap for all the decisions I need to make about the things that I don’t feel as comfortable with.”
“American Fiction” will be released by MGM in theaters on Dec. 15.