Dennis Gocer

For over a decade, wherever the culture’s gone, that’s where Cord Jefferson has been. During the heyday of digital media, Jefferson was a star blogger at the now-defunct Gawker. Then, he turned to Hollywood and worked on some of the top shows of the Golden Age of television, like Succession, The Good Place, Master of None, and Watchmen; his writing on Watchmen won him an Emmy in 2020.

Now, Jefferson’s making his directorial debut with his biggest and most ambitious project yet. His new movie American Fiction, which he wrote and directed, is a sharp publishing satire about Black fiction, white guilt, and the way racial trauma has been commodified. American Fiction stars Jeffery Wright, Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, and Tracy Ellis Ross, and hits theaters in December.

American Fiction won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and Jefferson is already the subject of some serious Oscar buzz.

Tune in every Thursday, and join us as we continue to explore the minds that shape our world. You can listen to the full episode in the player above, but here are a handful of excerpts from our conversation, which have been condensed and edited for clarity.

On how his grandparents’ hostile reaction to his parents’ interracial marriage shaped his attitude about race:

So my mother was disowned by her family when she married my father. The famous story is that she and my dad started dating right before Christmas. And her parents said, “We never want to speak to you ever again.” And my mom sort of thought, like, sure, yeah, okay, “never.”

And so she went out and bought a bunch of Christmas gifts for her parents and her brother and her siblings and left them on the front door at their home. And by the time she’d gotten back to her house, she went out to run more errands, all of the gifts were sort of at her front doorstep, and there was a note that said, “When we said never, we meant never.”

And so, she didn’t end up talking to her father again until he was on his deathbed. I would send letters to my grandfather until I was about 8 or 9, and he would send them back unopened. My mother would send letters pretty consistently, for a long time. But those ones never came back, and there’s like a very dark, kind of like, cinematic story where, my mother’s brother—who she eventually had a reconciliation with, her brother, before she passed—but, my mother’s brother said that one day he walked into their dad’s room and her dad was just sitting there reading this box of her letters that he had accumulated over the years and, you know, clearly he was like torn up about all of this.

Anyway, all that’s to say that,the thing that I learned from that, that is sort of like a foundational experience for me was that, my mother used to tell me all the time, she’d say, “I try to think of something that you could do that would make me stop talking to you and stop loving you. And she was like, I’ve thought of you murdering people and sort of like doing the worst things that a person could do. And even that, I can’t envision a world in which I would stop loving you and not want to speak to you.”

So I had, from a very early age, just this idea of like: race is ridiculous. And sort of like, pointless. And that this being anything worth caring about is just a ridiculous notion. And so I had that very basic understanding very early on that all of this is like, an absurd societal creation as opposed to something concrete and important.

On the big conversation he’s trying to provoke with American Fiction:

One of the things that this movie asks is something that I’ve asked for a long time, which is why is it always these stories when it comes to the “prestigious” films and television shows, right? Like, why is it always slavery? Why is it always a civil rights activist who needs to overcome, you know, white racists who are blocking Black students from getting to the school or dumping food on their head? Why is it always people who are in gangs? Why is it always people who are drug dealers? Why is it always a Black person being killed by the police?

Like, I’m not saying that these movies shouldn’t be made. In fact, I think that we live in a country now in which people are actively trying to rewrite history and actively trying to cut out these kinds of lessons from school. And they’re actively banning books about queer people and Black people and slavery and I understand that we are sort of opposing these kinds of people who want to get rid of these stories. And so, these stories aren’t just real, they’re also important to have.

That being said, I think the bigger and more important question is: why are we making all of these stories to the exclusion of all other kinds of stories, you know? To the exclusion of every other thing that has happened in Black life. Like nowadays, in the United States of America, Black life includes slavery, of course, but it also includes the President of the United States, and everything in between that.

I mean, there is such a limited perspective in Hollywood and in other places where Black stories get told, of Black life. So I think that, to me, that’s just sort of like a much more important question.

I don’t really care why artists make the art that they make. Well, I do care, but I think that artists make art within systems and institutions that were created long before they were around. And so, far be it from me to criticize another artist’s art because they’re simply working within the institutions that were made by people who were like 10 levels above. And so the question to me is, why are those people so interested in telling the same stories over and over and over and over again?

On how his background in journalism informs his storytelling:

I think probably the story always comes first. Because to me, there’s no way that that stuff isn’t going to creep in.

And so, it’s impossible for me to make something that isn’t a little sharp and a little acerbic because I think that I do have this, like, deep well of anger. I think that a lot of journalists do, you know? I think that that’s sort of like what guides a lot of journalists in the first place, is just sort of an anger about the things that they see around them and the problems that they see in the world that nobody’s really thinking about and caring about. I think that sort of anger really does drive a lot, at least the journalists that I’ve known. And so, that’s always going to be part of the work. There’s always going to be criticisms and some cynicism and some satire in the work that I do no matter what. You know, I also really wanna, especially these days, like move away from sort of like telling people: here’s what you think. Like, I did the op-ed thing. I did persuasive writing. I’ve done that. And I don’t really want to do that anymore.

And I think that if I was led by the idea that, here’s the message I want to get across, I just think that it just becomes too on the nose, you know?

One of the really important things for me about this movie was that it not feel like it’s spoon-feeding morality and spoon-feeding lessons to people. It’s just: I’m putting forth a series of scenes and characters and letting you make your own judgment about what you’ve just seen.

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