With writing credits on acclaimed series like “Watchmen,” “The Good Place,” and “Master of None,” Cord Jefferson has demonstrated an exceptional grasp of tone and a willingness to engage with complicated, profound questions of race, meaning, identity, and integrity. His first film as writer and director, “American Fiction,” is based on Percival Everett's 2001 novel, Erasure.
Ambitious, complicated, and darkly funny, it's a story about Monk (Jeffrey Wright), a Black professor whose satirical book, written in the voice of a stereotypic Black gangster and published under an alias, becomes an unexpected literary and popular success. "American Fiction" has received some festival awards, including Best Narrative Feature at the Middleburg Film Festival.
In an interview. Jefferson talked about grounding the satire of the story to keep it from becoming a farce, why he cast “Living Single’s” Erika Alexander as one of the film’s most sympathetic characters, and why he does not worry about whether audiences are laughing in the “right” moments.
You have said that you wanted to make this film a satire, but not a farce. What line do you draw to keep it grounded?
You cannot feel like the comedy is getting so big that it's overshadowing everything else.
My favorite character in the movie is Coraline, who I thought was really the heart of the movie.
Monk is a prickly character. He's argumentative, arrogant, rude, and any number of things. But the thing that Jeffrey does really well is that he plays this as a grump, but he's a lovable grump. And one of the ways that you realize that he's a lovable grump is that you see these warm, charming, effervescent people around him who love him despite his grumpiness. So, I think that [Monk’s sister] Lisa is important in that respect. I think that [Monk’s family housekeeper] Lorraine is very important in that respect. I think that [Monk’s mother] Agnes is important in that respect. And I also think that Coraline is very, very important in that respect. I think that he's surrounded by these people who love him despite himself.
I have loved Erika Alexander since I first saw her in “Living Single” when I was a kid. I was obsessed with that show. It played a big part in my life. And so, I always knew that she was this really warm, energetic presence. And then, when we were casting, I didn't even really watch any new Erika Alexander acting. I watched interviews with her, and I just saw, “Oh my God, she is the friendliest.” And then, when you meet her, she's the nicest, warmest person to every single person that she meets. It is really remarkable to see.
And I knew that in her scenes with Monk, you had to have a formidable woman. Monk is somebody who steamrolls a lot of people in his life. When we were casting for that role, you know, people send names from agencies for actors that they think would be good for the parts. And it being Hollywood, there were 20-year-old actors on the list and 30-year-old actors on the list. This happens a lot, and it's not as if a woman in her 30s can't be formidable, but I wanted somebody more around Monk's age. I wanted somebody who had her own strength, had her own life, and had her own interests to play off of and still be warm so that it felt like Monk was up against an actual person and an actual woman who had her own strength and derived her own power from her own life. And so, to me, that was just incredibly important when I was casting for that part. Erika, just as you said, played it beautifully. She's amazing.
I thought her line, "Nobody is as bad as on their worst day," underscored everything else that happened in the movie.
My father was a public defender when he first started his law career. That was taken from my life. I remember one day, we were watching the local news, and there was a mug shot on TV; I must have been about eight or nine, and I called the guy a “bad guy.” And my dad said, "There are no such thing as bad guys. Disabuse yourself of that belief that there are bad people and good people." He said, "Frequently, there are people to whom bad things have happened." And that was a foundational lesson for me. So, that was basically taken from my real life with my father.
It seems that your efforts to get the financing for the movie parallel the movie’s plot, trying to sell a story about characters who are not stereotypes.
Yes and no. I found the book that I adapted in December 2020, and the movie is going to be in theaters in December of 2023. So, it's three years from the kernel of the idea to when the movie's out. And a lot of people have told me that's the fastest they've ever heard of a movie coming together. And so, on the one hand, it was very speedy and easy. That being said, when I had this script, I shopped it around to a bunch of different producers. We had a lot of producers interested. And fortunately, we found T-Street, greenlit it in the room. That's why I went with T-Street: they had funding from MRC, and they said, “As long as it comes in under a certain budget, we will make the movie.”
And I was like, "Great! I can't believe this." I started crying in the meeting when they told me that. I could not believe that I was going to get something made because I had had such a hard time in TV. And then, after that, we started taking it around for distribution. And we had such an enthusiastic response when we had initially taken out the script. I had all these people, my manager and my agents, who were telling me, man, this is going to be a huge bidding war. People are so excited about this. And now that T-Street is attached, this is going to be massive.
And we took it out to 14 different distributors and streamers, all of the big names that you'd probably think of. We took it out to a ton of people, and people were so enthusiastic in the meetings, like, “Oh my God, I love this script.” And then, after we'd done all the meetings, everybody was like, “Get ready, get ready for a bidding war,” and it was crickets, nothing. We ended up getting two offers, one of which was from Orion, and the second offer was from a company that was offering us less than the production budget of the film. And the number of times that people said, "Oh man, I really wish I worked at a place where we could get this movie made. I really wish I worked at a place where we could make this movie. Oh man, we just can't make this movie here."
This is not a $150 million movie that, if it flops, people are going to lose their jobs and people are going to go bankrupt. It's a cheap movie that would have been a drop in the bucket for these places. But people just didn't have the will. They just didn't want to risk it. And so, on the one hand, it was like, yeah, the movie got made pretty quickly, but the reason the movie got made pretty quickly was because of basically three people who were willing to risk something. That's a very small handful of people in a very risk-averse industry. And it was a very small handful of people who were willing to risk something. And if the script hadn't come across their desk, then there's a world in which this movie doesn't get made.
Before I saw the movie, I was talking about it with one of the other critics. I'm white, he's Black. And he said, "I'm afraid the white people are going to laugh at all the wrong places." So, every time I laughed, I thought, “Am I laughing in the wrong place?”
I would say that there is no wrong place to laugh. I didn't make this movie to police people's laughter. I don't ever want to police people's laughter. People laugh for all different kinds of reasons. [Monk’s brother] Cliff says in the movie, in that scene where they're playing bocce ball, he's talking about the fact that one of his romantic partners finds him sleeping with another man, and he comes in and punches him. And Coraline says, "Well, what did the other guy do?" And he says, "He couldn't stop laughing. That's what he does when he gets nervous." And that line is in there because that's what I used to do when I used to get nervous. My parents used to be scolding me, and I'd be laughing, and all it would do is enrage them even more because they felt like I was just laughing.
There's nothing worse than trying to be mad at somebody and just having them laugh at you. And so, I think that, for me, people laugh for a lot of reasons. People laugh because they're nervous. People laugh because they're uncomfortable. People laugh because they find something funny. And trying to police people's laughter is never a world that I want to go down. And so, I would say that there is no right place to laugh. There's no wrong place to laugh. I understand where your friend is coming from. I get his point. But that being said, I did not make this movie to be enjoyed by a certain subsect of people. I made this movie to be enjoyed by everybody. I wanted to feel like a big tent movie.
We were recently in Savannah for the Savannah Film Festival. My costume designer, Rudy Mance, was on a panel there, and he said, "The day after our movie screened, an older white woman came up to him and said, "I realized as I was laughing and applauding that I was one of those white women I was laughing at. I was laughing at myself, and it felt so good." And the idea that people need to come in there and feel bad or guilty and that there's an appropriate way to feel, that is a road that I have no interest in going down. I want people to come in and enjoy themselves, and I want people to feel comfortable enjoying themselves.
I understand what your friend is saying; I just think that it is not my place to tell people how to respond to the movie. I made the movie with no spoon-fed morality in mind. I'm not interested in doing that. The movie's up to the interpretation of other people. I think they're laughing at the jokes in the film, which I wrote to be jokes.
I would ask, what is the preferable response? Is it better to make a movie in which we see racism and violence enacted on black people, and then instead, a room full of white audience members gasps or cries and pities those characters? Is that a preferable use of those images in art? And if so, why? And I'll just say that I don't agree with that take. I don't think that there's some superiority to one response to those images versus another. I don't think that using those kinds of images in order to make people weep or feel bad is preferable to using those kinds of images and that kind of material to make people laugh.
There are many ways to build empathy. I think there are many ways to engage people thoughtfully and get them to consider the world in a different way than they considered it before. I made the movie that I wanted to make. And so, I don't ever want to police people's laughter. And I don't ever want to police people's response to art.
"American Fiction" will be available in theaters on December 15th.