‘American Fiction’ Writer-Director Cord Jefferson On Oscar Noms And Pushing Boundaries Beyond Black Cinema: “Hopefully It Cracks The Door Open For More Filmmakers Behind Us”

On Tuesday, writer-director Cord Jefferson received his first Oscar nomination for American Fiction in Writing (Adapted Screenplay).

Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, American Fiction straddles the line between drama and satire to depict social commentary on microaggression and pigeonholing of Black creatives in the publishing and film industry. To tell this story, the film centers on Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), an intelligent and jaded author frustrated by the high-profit margins on Black entertainment that relies on discriminatory behaviors and tropes. But, in wanting to challenge the construct and prove his point about the bias for Black narratives that are more palatable for white consumers, he uses an alias to create a widely stereotypical book that accidentally gains him critical acclaim and notoriety.

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“This is the kind of movie that a lot of people told me wouldn’t work,” Jefferson told Deadline. “A lot of distributors passed on this film. And I think that when you have a film that’s about this kind of material and that stars are predominantly Black cast, think that on paper, a lot of people will say, ‘Well, that’s not a movie that’s going to be a success.'”

Luckily, the voters of the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thought the film had legs, as it garnered four other nominations for Amazon MGM Studios for Laura Karpman in Music (Original Score), Sterling K. Brown for Actor in a Supporting Role, Wright for Actor in a Leading Role and Best Picture.

Here, Jefferson discusses his first-ever Oscar nomination and hoping that future filmmakers can continue to persevere through perceptions of race and identity to push the boundaries of cinema.

DEADLINE:  Not only did you get nominated for your first Oscar for your feature film debut, but American Fiction garnered Jeffrey Wright’s and Sterling K. Brown’s first nominations as well.

CORD JEFFERSON: I’m so proud of them. I’m so happy for them. Truly. It’s the biggest honor.

DEADLINE:  For you to go from reporter to screenwriter to Oscar nominee is quite the wild ride. What went through your mind this morning as the nominations rolled in? Did you watch the live broadcast?

JEFFERSON: I’m an incredibly nervous and anxious person, and so I knew that there was no way I could watch [the Oscar telecast] live because I would probably have a heart attack or a stroke. And so, I stayed up as late as possible last night. So, for me, that was 2:30 AM, and then I took half the Xanax, and I said, no matter what happens, you’re going to want to be well rested tomorrow. And so, I wasn’t well rested. I fell asleep finally at 3:00 AM, but then I woke up at 7:00 AM, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep, but I rolled over and grabbed my phone, and I had 228 text messages. And so, I felt like, OK, something good has happened, or something awful has happened. So, fortunately, it was good.

DEADLINE:  Is there some sort of cosmic irony that you’re finding between having been nominated for American Fiction, which is also about this character who writes something ironically about Black depictions and stereotypes that ends up being elevated in an awards space like this one?

JEFFERSON: I think the difference in the film is that Monk hates what he’s made. And so, he’s really shocked by the fact that the world sort of disagrees with him and likes what he’s made. I will say that I am extraordinarily proud of our film. I’m extraordinarily proud of everybody who worked on it. I do not think that my pride ever allowed me to dream of being nominated for Oscars. I think that this was a year. I remember when we were submitting our film to the Toronto Film Festival, one of the producers saying, listen, temper your expectations because this is a very competitive year. This is a year when 70% of the huge directors in the world have decided to put out a movie. And so don’t be surprised if we don’t get in because it’s very competitive. And so, when I found out that we had gotten into the festival, I was jumping up and down. I didn’t allow myself to dream any bigger than that. It was just getting it into a film festival and having a film festival audience screen it. That was, to me, the biggest dream come true. And so, the fact that we’re here right now it’s truly beyond my wildest dreams. It really, really is.

This is, to me, in many ways, the little movie that could, we didn’t have a huge production budget. We didn’t have a huge marketing budget. We shot the film in 26 days. This is something that many people were passionate about, and many put their heart into it. And you hope people like it, but you never know. And so, this is just… I think I’m still trying to wrap my head around it to some extent.

DEADLINE:  What do you think people are responding to, and what would you like them to really consider as people watch this film?  

JEFFERSON: What people are responding to is not my place. I think that once you put the movie into the world, it’s for everybody. But I would say that something that I’ve heard from people is that the movie is different. We just made something that feels different. And I think that it feels different in tone. I think that it feels different in the ideas being presented. I think that it feels a little different than what people are used to seeing. I think that also the story, I think the thing that has really delighted me about the film is that this is on paper. This is the kind of movie that a lot of people told me wouldn’t work. A lot of distributors passed on this film. And I think that when you have a film that’s about this kind of material and that stars are predominantly Black cast think that on paper, a lot of people will say, well, that’s not a movie that’s going to be a success.

And I think that what has been really nice for me to see is how many different kinds of people have come out of the movie telling me that something resonated with them. We’ve shown the movie at the Hamptons Film Festival, and we’ve shown the movie at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and we’ve shown the movie on the West Coast and on the East Coast, and we’ve shown it to predominantly Black audiences and predominantly white audiences. We’ve shown it in England and France…and so many different kinds of people have come out and said they found something that resonated with them. And so, I think that that is another thing that the movie has going forward is it feels, despite the fact that it’s predominantly Black, despite the fact that it’s about a Black novelist and his family, it also has a universal quality that a lot of people can see themselves in.

And so that to me is really, really nice because I think that we’re frequently told, well, if we’re going to make a Black movie, it’s not going to resonate with people, and nobody’s really interested. And it’s like, hopefully, if this movie can do anything, hopefully, it cracks the door open a little bit more for filmmakers behind us who are trying to tell stories that feel a little different that people might not believe has, there’s a market for it. And so that, to me, has been the thing that I feel really proud of. And I think the thing that’s worked to our advantage is people can see themselves in it, and hopefully, other movies that are a little bit different like ours get an opportunity for a time in the spotlight.

The 96th Academy Awards are set to take place at the Dolby Theatre on March 10.

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