‘American Fiction’ Director Wanted to Tell a Black Story That Didn’t Dwell on ‘Misery’

Erika Alexander stars as Coraline and Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison in Cord Jefferson’s AMERICAN FICTION An Orion Pictures Release. (Credit: Claire Folger/Orion Releasing)

Before he became a filmmaker, American Fiction writer-director Cord Jefferson worked as a journalist.

During his time writing for Gawker, Jefferson said he was frequently assigned stories about Black trauma.

“I published this article in 2014, at the end of my journalism career, called ‘The Racism Beat,’ and it was about how I had reached this place in my career when, like weekly, somebody would come to me and they would say, ‘Do you want to write about Trayvon Martin being killed? Do you want to write about Breonna Taylor being killed? Do you want to write about Mike Brown being killed?” Jefferson recalled during a recent press conference in Los Angeles at the West Hollywood Edition Hotel.

“It just felt like this revolving door of misery,” the filmmaker said.

He thought making the transition to script writing would give him more creative freedom. It turned out, that wasn’t the case.

“It wasn’t long before people came to me, and they were like, ‘Do you want to write a movie about this Black teenager being killed by police? Do you want to write a movie about slaves? You want to write a movie about gang members?” Jefferson quipped.

Related Story: ‘American Fiction’ Makes AFI’s Top Ten List of 2023 Films

Writer-director Cord Jefferson on the set American Fiction. (Credit: Claire Folger/Orion Releasing)
Writer-director Cord Jefferson on the set American Fiction. (Credit: Claire Folger/Orion Releasing)

Then he read the 2001 novel Erasure from Percival Everett — about restrictions people put on Black writers — and something clicked. Jefferson decided to adapt the book into his directorial debut, American Fiction.

The dramatic comedy stars Jeffrey Wright as struggling author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison. After years of penning books no one reads, Monk’s agent tells him editors “want a Black book” that feeds into tropes. A frustrated Monk jokingly pens a stereotypical Black novel called “My Pafology,” that becomes a bestseller.

Wright told the audience at the news conference, Jefferson sent him the script with a note imploring him to take the role because there was no “plan B.”

“That was pretty flattering,” Wright said. “I don’t often get scripts designed with me in mind. And then when I read it… I just said, ‘Yeah, I can tell this story. I know this man’s journey, particularly his relationship to the family.'”

In the film, Monk faces a string of family tragedies just as he’s being phased out of his day job as a college professor.

“The script was so finely tuned, the satire, the irony that I just… I hopped on board,” Wright said.

The cast also includes Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Issa Rae, Adam Brody, Keith David, Leslie Uggams, and Myra Lucretia Taylor.

Erika Alexander plays Coraline, a neighbor who falls for Monk.

“I was really, really honored to be invited to it by Cord Jefferson, who laid out what he wanted to do, why he saw me in the role. It’s really nice to go where you’re invited, where you don’t have to prove what you’ve done.” Alexander said.

The O.C. star Adam Brody portrays a slick Hollywood director who wants to turn Monk’s book into a film, with the requirement that the movie have a stereotypical ending.

Brody said he jumped at the chance to work with Wright, even if it was for just one day.

“Like most actors, I’ve been a longtime Jeffrey Wright fan,” he shared. “I showed up in Boston, I met Cord and Jeffrey that morning on set, and I was done by lunch.”

Sterling K. Brown plays Clifford Ellison, Monk’s divorced brother who comes out as gay. The This Is Us alum said he accepted the role because of his desire “to expand how the media” portrays Black people.

“The fact that it gets to be populated with people with melanin makes me really excited and then hopefully, it’ll make money and we get a chance to make more,” he said.

For Jefferson, the goal was to bring a story to the screen that shows the “depth” of Black life.

“It’s sort of like we are defined by these five or six stories that we tell over and over again, largely that are about our ability to withstand pain and violence and suffering,” he said. “There was so much in the novel that was speaking to me, that it felt like, ‘Oh, this makes perfect sense for an adaptation.'”

American Fiction is now playing in select theaters.