TORONTO, ONT – Fifty pages into Percival Everett’s “Erasure” Cord Jefferson knew he wanted to adapt it into a movie script. Halfway through, he began to see Jeffrey Wright playing the book’s academic protagonist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison. By the time he was finished, he knew he wanted to direct it, too.
As quick as that, Cord Jefferson — the 41-year-old TV writer of “Succession,” “Master of None” and “Watchmen” — began working toward his directing debut, “American Fiction.” And just as speedily, following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, “American Fiction” became a breakout hit of the festival, launching Jefferson as a major new voice in movies.
In the film, Monk (Wright), is a frustrated author who’s agent (John Ortiz) tells him his books — the latest of which is a reworking of Aeschylus’ “The Persians” — aren’t “Black enough.” “I’m Black,” he responds, “and that is my guide.”
Monk, performed with acerbic perfection and pleasant disgust by Wright, writes as a drunken lark, a guide supposed to parody the sorts that promote and cater to white audiences’ view of Black folks. Beneath the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, he dashes off a manuscript of thug life trauma porn titled “My Pafology” that — shock — instantly sells and will get purchased for film rights.
“All the conversations that the book was having were conversations I was having with my friends and had been having for decades,” Jefferson, who was an editor for Gawker earlier than transitioning into TV, stated in an interview.
“I worked as a journalist for eight or nine years before working in television,” he added. “I was having the exact same conversations with Black colleagues in both professions: Why are we always writing about misery and trauma and violence and pain inflicted on Blacks? Why is this what people expect from us? Why is this the only thing we have to offer to culture?”
“American Fiction,” which MGM will launch Nov. 3 in theaters, is a humorous, jazzy riff on Black illustration in books and movies that delights in mocking each stereotypes and identification politics whereas pleading for one thing extra nuanced — one thing like “American Fiction.”
“One of the main themes is the way we see ourselves as unique, specific individuals, and the way the world tries to put us into little boxes and sand away all the things that make us unique and special,” Jefferson stated.
On the TIFF premiere, Jefferson took a second to notice that he loves films like “12 Years a Slave” and “New Jack City.” However Jefferson, lamenting “a poverty of imagination when it comes to what Black life looks like,” stated different movies on the spectrum ought to exist, too.
“I really feel like Jewish folks get ‘Schindler’s Listing’ and ‘Annie Hall,’” said Jefferson.
While Woody Allen’s film may be a reference point to “American Fiction,” direct comparisons are harder to come by for such a breezy but biting commentary. Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown and Erika Alexander co-star, along with Issa Rae, who plays the author of a book titled “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.”
“One of the most exciting things has been in test screening when we ask people, ‘What does this film remind you of?’” says Jefferson. “There’s been several people who can’t name a comedy or a film it reminds them of.”
Jefferson, who grew up in Tucson, Arizona, wrote on some of the issues his film touched on in a 2014 piece titled “The Racism Beat.” In it, he described the importance of writers from marginalized groups bringing individual perspective to journalism, but the difficulty of not being defined by it. Jefferson, who also wrote essays about donating a kidney to his father and being biracial, became a writer for “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” before transitioning into drama and comedy series. He won an Emmy for penning the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre episode of “Watchman” episode with Damon Lindelof.
Directing a film, Jefferson says, wasn’t necessarily a lifelong ambition. He hadn’t gone to film school, so he didn’t think it was in the cards until he spoke with a friend directing an episode of “Master of None” who had studied enterprise, not movie.
“I noticed all you want to do is have a imaginative and prescient and be capable to articulate it different folks,” says Jefferson.
That “American Fiction” is tough to categorize, he says, may imply he is heading in the right direction.
“This being my first movie, I’m eager to find what my voice is,” Jefferson says. “I don’t really know what my voice is yet, but I’m trying to achieve that. Having people say that the movie feels unique makes me think maybe I’m on to finding my voice somewhere along the path.”
Comply with AP Movie Author Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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