‘Succession’ writer skewers race bias in Oscar-tipped ‘American Fiction’

“Editors, they want a Black book,” the agent says to his author.

“They have a Black book. I’m Black, and it’s my book,” replies the exasperated writer.

It is a scene from the upcoming, Oscar-tipped satirical movie “American Fiction,” but it could just as easily be from the life of its creator and director Cord Jefferson.

Jefferson, whose previous credits include writing acclaimed hits like “Succession,” “Watchmen” and “The Good Place,” has endured years of being asked by Hollywood executives to create “Blacker” characters.

He recalls one Black writer friend pitching ideas for rom-coms and erotic thrillers, but instead being offered a project about slavery.

“When I come to them, and I say, ‘What does Blacker mean to you?’…  they immediately back off because they get terrified,” Jefferson, who is biracial, told AFP at a recent press conference.

“They realize that they can’t answer it without sounding foolish.”

The hypocrisy of virtue-signaling white executives in the entertainment industry — and the consequent pressures on Black artists to comply with stereotypes — are central themes of “American Fiction,” a movie based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure.”

It stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an urbane and highly educated author who, after early success, is struggling to find a publisher for his latest literary work.

Disillusioned with a publishing industry that only wants books from Black authors about “deadbeat dads, rappers (and) crack,” he pens a novel packed with appalling stereotypes as a vengeful joke — only to watch in astonishment as it becomes a sensation.

“The dumber I behave, the richer I get,” despairs Ellison, in a new trailer for the film released Monday, ahead of its December release.

Last month, the movie won the top audience prize at the Toronto film festival — an important early bellwether for the Oscars best picture race.

The award gave a head start to eventual best picture Academy Award winners such as “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech” and “Green Book.”

‘A ton of humor’ 

The film tackles challenges “happening right now, in the present day, to Black writers in entertainment and in publishing,” said Jefferson.

Too often, he said, movies starring or created by Black and Latino talent focus on atrocities such as slavery, or on drug cartels.

“I think there are a lot of people who feel like culture at this moment represents and reflects a very slim fraction of what their lives look like,” Jefferson said.

While it is important to educate audiences about past wrongs — particularly at a time when some people are “actively trying to erase slavery from the history books” — they should not exist in art to “the omission of everything else,” he noted.

“Why isn’t the breadth of storytelling given to people of color the way that you have a breadth of storytelling for other people in Hollywood?” he asked.

Though it takes on weighty issues, “American Fiction” is comedic in tone.

Audiences in Toronto, as well as those attending a press preview in Los Angeles, laughed throughout the film.

Jefferson said the film is not “scolding anybody or condemning anybody.”

“All we wanted to do was make a movie that addressed these issues, but also had a ton of levity and a ton of humor,” he said.

Indeed the film, which weaves in Ellison’s dysfunctional family, provides opportunities for well-known dramatic actors like Wright (“Casino Royale,” “Westworld”) and Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us,” “Waves”) to show off their comedic chops.

“Especially nowadays, with the way that the world is, if we don’t find ways to laugh and have fun, then really all is lost,” said Jefferson.

He added: “Sometimes you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying.”

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