Cord Jefferson has had quite a week and it’s barely Wednesday.
The American Fiction writer-director spent Monday evening in San Francisco where he received the George Gund III Award for Virtuosity presented by one of his stars, John Ortiz, during the SFFILM Awards at the city’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Shortly after 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Jefferson received word that his feature directorial debut snagged five Spirit Award nominations including nods for feature, screenplay, lead performance for star Jeffrey Wright and supporting performance for both Sterling K. Brown and Erika Alexander.
By nightfall, Jefferson and his team of collaborators headed to Beverly Hills’ Samuel Goldwyn Theatre for the film’s red carpet premiere where the filmmaker was still trying to process the swirl. “I was preparing myself for the film to not get into the Toronto Film Festival. This is a year in which all the biggest directors in the world seemingly have a movie out, and so people were saying, ‘Temper your expectations,’” he recalled of debuting at the prestigious festival in September. “When I found out the film got into Toronto, I was jumping up and down in my kitchen with enthusiasm. I didn’t even allow myself to think about winning the audience award, and I certainly didn’t allow myself to think about being nominated for any other awards besides that.”
Now that it has become a reality, Jefferson, a veteran TV writer with credits on Watchmen, The Good Place, Master of None and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, is caught feeling “so overwhelmed, but incredibly grateful.” He calls it a dream come true to be hearing his name mentioned in the same breath this awards season as titles from Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan, filmmakers “who truly have meant so much to me since I was a child. It feels unreal and surreal.”
Jefferson experienced another pinch-me moment on the red carpet while doing press alongside his cast of actors including Wright, Brown, Alexander, Ortiz, Tracee Ellis Ross and Adam Brody, all of whom could only recently join him on the promo rounds once the SAG strike ended. His film, based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, centers on Wright as a man named Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a frustrated writer who writes an outlandish “Black” book under a pseudonym only to see it become wildly successful and receive widespread acclaim. Meanwhile, he’s trying to keep his family together after the sudden death of a sibling and his mother’s declining health.
“When they greenlit this movie, I started crying in the meeting,” Jefferson revealed, referencing studio partners at Orion/MGM. “That’s how confident I was that this wasn’t going to happen for me. I was confident that I would never get to experience something like this. I thought that I was always going to be a writer in somebody else’s room. The fact that I’m here right now and bearing witness to this is, again, truly, it just all feels fake.”
His actors know it’s happening. “When I first got the script, I was completely blown away,” Ortiz explained. “I was knocked out in the most beautiful way. He did such an amazing job adapting it — I’ve never read anything like it.” Brown agreed: “The script he wrote was so damn good and so clear and concise from page one. It was also thoughtful from page one. I knew that if he had created this document and had such an intimate understanding of it, then he would have an intimate understanding of how to bring it to fruition.”
Jefferson has said that he was inspired to bring it to fruition after reading Everett’s book, a chain of events that started in 2020 after a TV series he had been developing had the plug pulled right before they were about to start production. Now, with the early awards recognition for American Fiction (ahead of a Dec. 15 rollout), who knows, maybe that project can get revived by some studio, network or streamer. “This town loves a heat-seeking missile, and so, yeah, there have been a lot of incoming calls. I’m deeply grateful for those incoming calls. I hope that there’s a second life for that show because it’s really good and we’ve written all the episodes. It’s just sitting there for somebody to take and if anybody’s reading this right now, please, we’ve got an entire eight-episode season of television to sell you. It’s very good and I can direct it.”