Cord Jefferson on ‘American Fiction,’ His Rich and Debate-Ready TIFF Directorial Debut

In December 2020, Cord Jefferson sat down with the novel “Erasure,” by Percival Everett, and saw his life reflected back at him. “It was like someone had written down a Christmas gift for Cord,” he says. So he did the first thing a professional screenwriter might do — he tried to find a way to get the rights.

“Erasure,” first published in 2001, concerns an ambitious author facing down family and personal crises as he struggles to find a foothold in a literary establishment that seems to have no place for him. “I have two siblings, and one of my siblings was at home taking care of my sick mother while I was pursuing my writing ambitions,” he recalls. “And the things the novel was speaking about in terms of in relation to what this country expects from Black novelists — those are conversations I’ve been having with my friends for literally decades.”

But despite Jefferson’s intimate connection to the material, he suspected getting the rights from Everett might be a heavy lift: “I was nervous to approach him,” he says, “because I had heard he had said no to people adapting his work in the past.”

His fears were unfounded; Everett gave his blessing to Jefferson to write a script without paying for the rights — they’d work it out later if it came together. Now, “American Fiction,” Jefferson’s debut feature as screenwriter and director, premieres Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival.

While distributor MGM declined to screen the film for trade journalists ahead of its premiere, it’s fair to say that the source material is rich, dense — and potentially controversial. The novel, for instance, features a book-within-a-book written by protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (played in the film by Jeffrey Wright). The meta-text is a shrewd bit of loathing, projected inward and outward: Monk believes the only writing the world wants to see from a Black author features degradation and suffering, and so he creates a brutal pastiche of all of American popular literature’s most shopworn clichés about urban Black life.

It’s a tonally tricky high-wire act, and one that Jefferson feels ready to hash out. “I welcome debate,” Jefferson says. “I welcome discussion.” “Erasure” presents a critique both of what readers expect and of the writing that’s presented to them: Monk’s novel, seen in a certain light, doesn’t look too different from the real-life book that became the film “Precious,” a past TIFF People’s Choice winner. But Jefferson prefers to keep the conversation on audience expectations rather than individual works. To wit: “I really liked ‘12 Years a Slave.’ I really liked ‘Boyz n the Hood.’ I really like these quote-unquote ‘stereotypical Black trauma films.’ The more important critique is: Why are these the only works of art that are considered prestige Black art in America?”

Should “American Fiction” land, Jefferson is positioned not merely to make his critique but to present a path forward. One of the most closely watched screenwriting talents in TV, Jefferson, a former journalist, has worked on shows including “Watchmen” (for which he won an Emmy), “Station Eleven” and “The Good Place.” (That last show’s creator, Michael Schur, advised Jefferson on how to dramatize Monk’s writing his fiery thesis statement of a novel.)

Jefferson’s has been both an exalted career and a slightly unorthodox one: Few journalists, perhaps, have achieved at the level he has attained in screenwriting. When asked how it all fits together, he’s ready with the examples, though. “My literary heroes were always people like Joan Didion and James Baldwin, because what it meant to be a writer to them was very broad.” (He notes that Baldwin wrote a screenplay that eventually became the basis for Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.”) “Hollywood has a lot of people who try to build up these big ivory walls to protect it and say, ‘Only geniuses welcome here.’ I hate that. I like to write stuff, and the stuff I like to write about when I was working in journalism are the same things I like to write about now.”

And, on-set, Jefferson was hardly a remote ivory-tower figure. The first bit of the shoot, he says, was somewhat petrifying: “OK,” he thought at the time, “now I’m going to tell Jeffrey Wright how to act, despite the fact that I’ve never directed so much as a McDonald’s commercial? Where do I get off?” After what he calls “a rocky first couple of days” of nerves, Jefferson leaned on his collaborators. “Every department head that I met with I said, ‘There’s going to be a learning curve. I would love to learn on the job with you.’ And everybody that came aboard really helped me come into my own,” he recalls.

As for his journey to the festival, Jefferson strikes a somewhat wistful chord. “I’m very, very sad the actors can’t join us,” he says. “But it is what it is. I’m a union man through and through. I believe this is an existential threat, and so if these are the circumstances under which I need to support the film, that’s fine.”

Even at an attenuated TIFF, “American Fiction” may just make for a splashy coming-out party for the newly minted director. It comes with what Jefferson calls “the biggest vote of approval”: He screened it for Everett, who told him, “I had taken the source material, and made it my own.”

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