Sunday Times


Margaret Gardiner talks to director Cord Jefferson and actor Jeffrey Wright about the universal and timeless appeal of ‘American Fiction’


Ever tried getting a book published? Getting published is 50% of the challenge. There’ sa perceived recipe for “success”. If it’s different from that, it won’t get published. If it is published, getting it in front of people so they know they can buy it, is another challenge entirely. At each stage there are “gatekeeper­s” who don’t want writers to veer away from the proven recipe of what sells.

American Fiction is a film directed and written by Cord Jefferson, adapted from Percival Everett’s Erasure. The film is about more than its logline. A frustrated black writer stolidly writes stories outside the pigeonhole­d expectatio­ns for people of colour — and fails to find an audience. In an act of defiance, he creates a book full of tropes — and to his dismay — becomes a celebrated author.

The horror, humour and dilemma of playing into the stereotype­s he hates, while climbing the bestseller list, is delightful. That the main character is portrayed by Jeffrey Wright (one of the best character actors in the business), in all his fastidious outrage, is much of the reason the ride is so enjoyable.

There’s no preachines­s. Instead, there are developed characters dealing with the death of a parent and the consequenc­es of unfulfille­d potential.

Another theme is the martyr syndrome among siblings — the “good”, but distant child vs the ones who takes on the burden of looking after the parent. With a generation who are facing the squeeze of being caregivers to parents and children, while running a home, chasing careers and traversing relationsh­ip complicati­ons, there are plenty of issues to mine.

Wright has been nominated by plenty of awards bodies for his performanc­e, including the Golden Globes and the Oscars. The Academy also nominated Sterling K Brown in the supporting actor category as Wright’s brother, crumbling under the strain of being what people think he should be. I interviewe­d Wright and Jefferson in Beverly Hills about the film.

Wright points out that the book was written 20 years ago so, while the themes resonate as fresh, he categorise­s them as timeless.

“We don’t try to answer questions,” he says. “We try to raise better questions. The portrait of the family is a response to social commentary. The two sides of the film are complement­ary and symbiotic.” Wright has an impressive body of work in his resumé — Westworld,

The French Dispatch and Rustin, to name a few — and has worked consistent­ly across genres.

Does he feel a change in film and television content towards inclusion of diverse stories and representa­tion? “In the past 10 years, technology such as streaming platforms has provided greater outlet for stories. We have a vast array of content making room for previously marginalis­ed voices. One of the unfortunat­e offshoots is that a lot of stuff is being made which isn’t seen. “This film wouldn’t exist without Jefferson’s vision and tenacity; insisting this film be made and seen.”

The freshman director jumps in: “Having never written or directed anything before this film, to have Jeffrey — who I’ve watched in Mike Nichols’ Angels in America, in Batman, in 007, in Wes Anderson movies — work with me on this film was phenomenal.”

Wright adds: “I didn’t want this movie to lecture. I didn’t want people to feel like there’s a right or wrong way to be black or to think about these issues. I didn’t want to make a film where people felt like they were being moralised to. We wanted a movie with levity but also with an emotional core, leaving the audience with a smile.”

Jefferson reverts to the theme of creativity by consensus. “This being Hollywood, Jeffrey’s love interest was expected to be young. But I wanted someone closer to Jeffrey’s age. The 58-year-old Wright created a crotchety, isolated character. I wanted a formidable presence to counterbal­ance him, a woman who could be a good foil.”

Jefferson found her in 54-year-old Erika Alexander, an iconic black American actress. “Initially, making the film came down to Jeffrey. Once he’d said yes, everything got easier. We got funding and other actors wanted to work with him.”

Getting American Fiction made reflects some of the themes of the film — the endorsemen­t of the powers that be to approve the creation of something that doesn’t follow in the mould and doesn’t lean into a stereotype.

“American Fiction wouldn’t have been made without Alana Mayo at Orion Pictures, sharing Cord’s vision that there’s an audience for it. She was the only person with decision-making power who thought it was viable and didn’t see a gap between the story and its audience.

“There’s a mispercept­ion of audience desires. What’s fed to the audience is based on precedent and what ‘they’ want. But I believe ‘they’ actually want different stories. Our film has a universali­ty to it. Audiences from across background­s find themselves in this story,” says Jefferson.

“That’s largely, if not entirely, due to the portrait of this family — which is messy, dysfunctio­nal but also works in parts. It’s loving in spite of itself. It’s human, and it happens to be populated by black people. But in the end, it’s about a family like any other.”

 ?? Picture: SUPPLIED ?? Jeffrey Wright, who stars in ‘American Fiction’, is being nominated for several awards for his performanc­e.
Picture: SUPPLIED Jeffrey Wright, who stars in ‘American Fiction’, is being nominated for several awards for his performanc­e.
 ?? ?? Sterling K. Brown plays the brother, Cliff.
Sterling K. Brown plays the brother, Cliff.

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