By Raquel ‘Rocky’ Harris | The Wrap
Jeffrey Wright, the star of “American Fiction,” was the only actor director Cord Jefferson had in mind to play lead character Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in his adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure.”
In fact, Jefferson said he began hearing the character speak in Wright’s voice by the time he was halfway through the book. So when he was given a list of other actors he might want to consider for the role, he paid no attention.
“When the script started going around, people would send me all these lists of basically every famous Black actor in Hollywood,” Jefferson said. “All these guys are incredibly talented. But it’s Jeffrey for me. I just knew. He has this gravitas, this beautiful sonorous voice. He has incredible range.” So Jefferson wrote Wright a letter, asking him to play Monk and confessing, “I have no Plan B.”
While Wright said he often receives written requests for his service as an actor, he was drawn in by Jefferson’s compelling script and the writer-director’s candid way of stating that he had no backup if Wright declined.
“I was struck by the ‘no Plan B,’” Wright said. “It’s just a great way to phrase it. Then I started reading the script, and I was pulled in from the first scene.”
That initial scene is set in a college classroom where Monk is teaching a class in Literature of the American South, and a white student objects to him writing the full name of the Flannery O’Connor short story “The Artificial N—–” on the board. (“With all due respect, Britney, I got over it,” he says to the student. “I think you can, too.”)
“I loved the framing of that conversation around language,” he said. “It’s a conversation that is relevant in our country today, but it’s a conversation that isn’t always handled with the type of fluency and intelligence that Cord had managed in that scene.”
“American Fiction” centers on a talented Black novelist and professor who has yet to get his big break and is an outlier in his family of doctors. When his latest manuscript is rejected by another publisher and he finds himself caring for his impaired mother (Leslie Uggams), he takes on a pseudonym and pens a book that perpetuates Black stereotypes after frustratingly watching other similar works receive acclaim.
He does so as a joke, to rub publishers’ faces in what they want from Black authors—but to his surprise, the book ends up being a hit. “I found a lot of parallels between Monk’s journey and my own, particularly around his relationship to his family and to his mother,” Wright said. “My mom passed away about a year before Cord sent me the script and I was still, and still am, dealing with the implications of that. I could very much appreciate the pressures on Monk to be caretaker to she who was his caretaker. It really moved me.”
On the surface, “American Fiction” is a comedy that navigates the imperfections of a family dealing with loss, estranged relationships, depression and mental illness. But the story also highlights the limits that have historically been placed on Black stories and on Black creators’ fight to provide varying narratives that portray more than one experience from the Black community.
Wright, whose 30-plus-year career has included “Basquiat,” three “James Bond” movies, three “Hunger Games” movies, two Wes Anderson movies and Emmy and Tony wins for “Angels in America,” applauded the film for its honest acknowledgement of systemic issues as well as its depiction of communal resilience and the love of family.
“I’ve had experiences in the industry which have tried to limit expectations for me or misunderstood my perspective,” he said. “What I’ve also tried to do is to be as capable an actor as I could. Our film, in that regard, acknowledges that there are these challenges. It acknowledges that these can be frustrating, but at the same time it acknowledges that there’s a world beyond that. There’s an expansive, complicated, nuanced, messy, beautiful world as represented in some ways by the family in this film that has nothing to do with preconceptions from outside of the house. It’s a family just like any other family that happens to be populated by Black folks. It’s got all that stuff that is universally recognizable to most of us who were born of a family. So yeah, the limitations are there. But so is the freedom, if you can grab it by the throat.”
“American Fiction” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award. Since then, it’s been nominated for best picture at the Independent Spirit Awards, Critics Choice Awards and Golden Globe Awards and been named to the AFI’s Top 10 list. Along the way, it’s made its star happy that Cord Jefferson stuck to his instincts. “There were a lot of elements that came together,” he said, “and so I’m grateful to Cord for reaching out to me and for not having a Plan B and sticking with Plan A.”