Turning ‘American Fiction’ into Healing: How Cord Jefferson Used His Film Debut as Therapy

The award-winning journalist-turned-Emmy-winning television writer talks to BET about using his newfound fame as a filmmaker to heal some old wounds and laugh at our thoughts on race.

Cord Jefferson was a nervous wreck in 2018. He was still grieving after losing his mother two years before cancer. Still, he knew he needed another creative outlet to get some things off his chest about his racial identity and emotions that he never shared with anyone.  

The thought never occurred to Jefferson, who earned a Primetime Emmy Award in 2020 for co-writing an episode of HBO’s Watchmen with series creator Damon Lindelof, that his steps towards healing over the next five years would land his name in endless conversations around extraordinary films this year. The biracial writer from Tucson, AZ, made his directorial debut with American Fiction, a satire about a frustrated English professor and author (Jeffrey Wright) who writes a novel under a pseudonym that mocks stereotypes about Black people that ultimately becomes a smash with the white publishing establishment. 

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Alongside Wright, American Fiction features performances by Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander, Issa Rae, Keith David, Adam Brody, John Ortiz, and Leslie Uggams. Jefferson’s breakout hit won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September before claiming several top prizes at various film festivals. American Fiction has a limited theatrical run beginning December 15 before its official release on December 22.

Getting praised by critics and peers is cool to Jefferson, but taking home the Audience Award is what hits the first-time filmmaker a little differently. “I’m overwhelmed with gratitude,” Jefferson, 41, told BET. 

“Even getting to make the movie felt like a miracle just because I’ve had such a hard time getting stuff made in Hollywood. It’s special because it’s people who don’t work in the industry who just come to see films to enjoy themselves. It feels a little more grassroots and organic in a very nice way.”

Adapted from the novel Erasure by Percival Everett in 2001, American Fiction was inspired by satirical films like Hollywood Shuffle, Bamboozled, Sorry to Bother You, Network, and Putney Swope. Jefferson’s original working title for the spec script he wrote over three months was Fuck until he read Langston Hughes’s poem Let America Be America Again and Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon while reflecting on his 81-year-old Black father telling his long, drawn-out stories.

Orion Pictures

Jefferson settled on American Fiction after writing “20 to 25” titles. Losing a development deal for television in 2020, he chose satire to get his point about race in media across because his audience could laugh to keep from crying.

“There’s a lot of fiction when it comes to the idea of race that we treat as real,” said Jefferson, who studied sociology at The College of William and Mary. “We need to talk about these subjects without being so morose because it’s already sad enough. It’s a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. You don’t need to make yourself sadder being so serious. In fact, you need to find ways to laugh and enjoy yourself despite the bad circumstances.”

Jefferson, who wrote episodes of Master of None, The Good Place, Station Eleven, Survivor’s Remorse and Succession, was disappointed that he was forced to travel and enjoy his newfound fame in solitude during the early part of American Fiction’s press run because of the writers strike. The NAACP Image Award-winning lone ranger wanted his ensemble cast to get and smell their flowers in real time.

“I’m very proud of the movie so I can talk about it all day, but the real reason I want the actors out here to celebrate with me is because they’re all so great in it,” Jefferson said. “These are actors, who, unfortunately, like a lot of Black actors, are pretty undervalued and not utilized all of the time.”

Incorporating the family story arc as a subtext in American Fiction allowed Jefferson to tap into being more transparent about his family struggles. The former journalist who published content centering around race and culture for The New York Times, Gawker, ESPN, The Guardian, The Root, and National Geographic developed both Wright and Brown’s characters in the film as mirrors for healing some old wounds he experienced around not knowing his mom’s family, who is white.

Like Wright’s portrayal, Jefferson - the youngest of three - moved in with his ailing mother while he endured some guilt for not being there more as he actively pursued his writing career.

“I’m an equal divide between those two characters,” he said. “What both of those guys are doing that I related to is they built these walls in front of them to hide their true selves in the world. I hide a lot of stuff from my mother, but she’s dead now and there’s a lot of me that she’ll never know. I wanted to be perfect for her and didn’t want her to think that I didn’t have any flaws.”

Claire Folger

“They aren’t major things, but they’re little lies that I was telling,” Jefferson adds, sharing that his mother didn’t know he had several tattoos or chain smoked until six months before she died. “It was something that I really thought about for a long time. I was rarely honest with people about who I actually was because I was in so much pain and angry at the world.”

These days, working through those feelings have turned into beauty from the struggle. American Fiction has received five Independent Spirit Awards nominations, with additional talks of being in the running for Oscars in 2024.

But as the accolades continue to shower on Jefferson, the crown jewel is his ability to dig deeper within himself. Peeling back those layers has helped him grow as a writer and provided the basis for American Fiction, the work he’s most proud of to date. 

“If I tried to make this movie five years ago, it would’ve been a totally different movie,” he said. “This film is so deeply personal to me because there is so much of me in this. Doing all the work that I’ve done on myself over the past five years has been hugely helpful in writing this. I just want to keep learning how to do new stuff. That’s all.”


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