Cord Jefferson woke up very early on Oscar nominations morning Jan. 23 to discover that his debut feature “American Fiction” was the recipient of five noms, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. He still doesn’t quite believe it.
“It truly feels beyond my wildest dreams,” a very chuffed Jefferson told TheWrap on a quick phone call. “The best way that I can put it is this was a movie that we made under very little auspices. We didn’t have a ton of money, we didn’t have a ton of time. It was a relatively obscure book [Percival Everett’s “Erasure”] that I adapted. We made the movie because we were passionate about it, and we loved it. But, you know, there was no guarantee that anybody else would love it.”
“American Fiction” has been a contender ever since it dropped at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, where the buzz started swarming even amidst a pretty strong lineup of films, with many predicting that it would win the coveted People’s Choice Award, which historically has included Best Picture winners such as “Nomadland,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”
“The support of journalists early on out of the Toronto Film Festival really allowed it to sort of help break through,” Jefferson, who already has an Emmy for cowriting “This Extraordinary Being,” one of the most impressive episodes of HBO’s “Watchmen.” “We didn’t have huge marketing budgets or the big sort of campaigns that other movies have.”
Jefferson has long known the power of journalists and media — he was previously a prominent editor for Gawker and writer for everyone from USA Today to The New York Times Magazine.
“I’ve always loved journalists. I love being a journalist. I still consider myself a journalist in some ways. I’ll always love the profession. I am seeing the power of the profession on this side of it. That and the ability that it has to support the little guy in some ways.”
For all his movie’s acidic qualities and stuck-in-the-throat chortles it accrues telling its tale of a put-upon writer (Oscar nominee Jeffrey Wright) unwittingly conjuring a new persona on his road to success, Jefferson is about as affable as can be. (He has a fantastic, full-scale laugh.) But that duality is partly the reason “American Fiction” is so memorable and why it feels like such a fully rounded piece.
“This is a movie that I think on paper, people might say, ‘I don’t know that anybody’s going to be interested in this outside of a handful of people in New York and Los Angeles,'” Jefferson said. “But we’ve now shown the film in the Deep South, predominately Black audiences, young and old people, the Hamptons, Morehouse College in Atlanta, England, France — every kind of person, so many people have come out and said this is a movie that they found something in.”
The film’s Oscar attention even came with a few notable firsts, one being that, with Wright and Brown, this is the first time there have been Black actors nominated for lead and supporting actor for the same film.
“It was important for me to invite as many people as possible into the party,” Jefferson said. “That was always my intent. I really, really wanted to make something that felt like it was saying, ‘Yes, you’re welcome here and you can have this, this conversation with everybody.’ I didn’t want to make something that felt exclusionary, or something that felt mean-spirited or punching down.”
For now, Jefferson and his cast (who are additionally nominated for the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award on Feb. 24) are celebrating their triumph. (“Sterling told me he’s already day-drinking,” Jefferson said in that great, full-throated laugh.) But the newly arrived moviemaker is just glad he made something that connected with a wide swath of people in very divided times.
“You can still have these kinds of conversations in movie theaters, and then have people leave with a smile on their face, having had a nice time. But also thinking a little bit, hopefully,” he said.
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