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‘American Fiction’ Director Shares Shocking Hollywood Stories

Cord Jefferson recalls receiving racially insensitive studio notes, stereotypical gigs

Cord Jefferson is primed for a huge 2024.

The writer’s previous, high-profile gigs include “The Nightly Show,” “Master of None” and “The Good Place.”

Jefferson’s directorial debut, “American Fiction,” has awards season glory stamped all over it.

AMERICAN FICTION | Official Trailer

Jeffrey Wright stars as a black college professor and author struggling to get his latest novel published. In a pique of frustration, he cranks out a stereotypically “black” story that wallows in cultural stereotypes. Take that, he thinks.

The resulting book, “My Pafology,” is a smash even before its release. That forces him to face some uncomfortable questions while saying plenty about today’s literary realm.

Now, Jefferson is sharing some of the real-life experiences that fueled “American Fiction,” based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, “Erasure.”

The rising star appeared on “The Last Laugh” podcast with Matt Wilstein this week and shared some of the behind-the-scenes anecdotes that sound like excerpts from his film.

“I’ve had conversations in which I’ve been told … to make a character in a script ‘blacker’ by an executive,” Jefferson said. “And the minute that I ask them, ‘what is blacker mean? You have to explain to me what it means to make somebody blacker.’ And, of course, they just drop that note because they know they’ll sound like idiots if they explain that note to me.”

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He went on, saying he’s been offered the chance to direct many “inspirational slavery movies,” something aggressively covered with recent films like “12 Years a Slave,” “The Birth of a Nation.” “Antebellum,” “Harriet” and Will Smith’s “Emancipation.”

“These aren’t things that are happening 20, 30, 40 years ago. These are things that are happening two years ago,” Jefferson said. “There’s a real set of rigid restrictions that people put around black artists.”

One of the inspirations behind “American Fiction?” The 1987 comedy “Hollywood Shuffle” by Robert Townsend.

Hollywood Shuffle (1987) | Official Trailer | MGM Studios

That film satirized the industry’s de facto racism, an approach a young Jefferson cheered.

“They found a way to laugh about this stuff … and make a movie that’s really, really hilarious and funny,” he said. “It felt like a real revelation to me as a kid.”

He later learned how many jumps the film’s creator had to jump through to bring his tale to the screen.

“I found out that Robert Townsend … made that movie by maxing out 12 or 13 of his credit cards,” he said of the film’s humble roots. “Here I am, almost 40 years later …and I got a guy to write me a check for millions of dollars to make my movie.

“Things are changing for the better. Obviously, we have a long way to go … I’m not so cynical as to say nothing’s gotten better. We’re seeing the progress daily,” he added.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story had the incorrect publishing date for “Erasure.”

6 Comments

  1. “Erasure” was published in 2001, not in 2021. Which makes Percival Everett a true oracle of the future! I find it unbelievable – and heartening – that the movie has been made.

  2. Yeah, there just aren’t enough inspirational slavery movies out there. We need at least a few more dozen.
    This movie sounds interesting, and the clip that I’ve seen is hilarious.

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