Watch: American Fiction cast reflect on their Oscar nominations
American Fiction makes a valid critique of the entertainment industry, that the stories of Black people that it commissions and celebrates are too often focused on negative stereotypes, which is a subject the cast feels strongly about too.
Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K Brown speak to Yahoo about the film's message and the Oscar nominations they, and the film, have received, with the latter saying that "it doesn't have to be just Black pain that merits rewards". This valid critique is the central message in American Fiction — which follows struggling author Thelonious "Monk" Ellison who writes a stereotypically "Black" book as a joke after becoming disheartened by the industry's one-dimensional approach to Black authors, only for it to become a bestseller.
Brown, who has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Monk's brother Cliff, reflected: "I think the film is saying that the narrow swath in which we have been accustomed to with regards to Black life doesn't invalidate that slice of life, right. Whether you're talking about 12 Years a Slave, whether you're talking about Roots, whether you're talking about Precious, whether you talking about Boyz n the Hood, these stories are good stories and they're important to be shared.
"But they shouldn't be shared to the exclusion of other stories, and it shouldn't be the ones that are told over and over again to make mainstream audiences think that this is what Black life is, period."Sterling K Brown
"It's a part of it, and so people have been recognised in all of those films that I just named —or TV show for Roots in that particular situation— and they've been recognised deservedly, but it doesn't have to be just Black pain that merits rewards or awards, or what have.
"Black life is more than just pain. There is joy, there's complexity, there's frustration, there's [the] artistic search for that integrity."Sterling K Brown
"All of those things are part of Black life because all of those things are part of life, right? So I'm happy to get recognised, absolutely, and I'm hoping that they didn't throw it at me just because they felt bad."
Wright, who is nominated for Best Actor, also has thoughts on the matter, responding to Brown by saying he was "absolutely right about those films" but sharing that he felt some "deserve critique" for how they approach narratives around African Americans.
He explains: "I have to say, though, that there have been films that I've watched that have told certain stories, certain narratives from the Black perspective and I was uncomfortable watching some of those films.
"Not because I was made to feel uncomfortable, but it seemed to me that there was a type of fetishising or voyeurism that was employed to explore violence against Black bodies."Jeffrey Wright
"Then that was used, really, as a marketing tool and to make it digestible to audiences in a way that I thought was really, really odd. So some of those... yes, include a wide range of perspectives, but some of them deserve critique."
Wright also shared his happiness over the film being nominated for five Oscars, saying: "We've been acknowledged by our peers —by other actors, in our case, who vote to nominate fellow actors— they said job well done, they said the work is good... our work is as good as anyone's work out there this year and it's wonderful to be included.
"I will say this though, that this recognition comes not only as a result of the quality of the work for anyone, it comes to because a film and that work has support behind it, from studio and the backers of the film, to make sure that the work is seen. And in this case, Orion and Amazon MGM have been incredibly energetic in getting this film out, we won the Toronto Film Festival that didn't hurt, but they have been committed to to getting our film to audiences and getting our film in front of the Academy, and that's made a difference.
"There's some wonderful work out there, wonderful films and performances out there, beautiful stuff that wasn't recognised this year, doesn't mean the work wasn't good, right?"Jeffrey Wright
"We're not here by ourselves or by accident, and I'm appreciative of that, but I don't think it's about overcompensating and representing to me, we happened to make a good film." Brown concurred, saying: "We made a good film. I think we did some solid work and I'm proud of it, I stand behind it."
The film's director Cord Jefferson also shared his appreciation for the film being recognised by the Academy Awards, telling Yahoo that "the really nice thing about Oscar nominations is that it is other artists, it is your colleagues, your peers, and so to be welcomed into that group of people, especially for a first film, it's just a true honour."
The adaptation process
Jefferson's film is based on the book Erasure by Percival Everett, a novel that the screenwriter-turned-director felt was speaking directly to him as he was reading it.
"When I read that book, it resonated with me so deeply that it felt like a book written specifically for me, like somebody sat down to write Cord Jefferson: A Novel," he explains. "Besides the political themes and what it means to be a Black writer and the limitations that people put on Black [writers] there's all of this stuff going on in Monk's life, with his personal life.
"Like, Monk has two siblings, I have two siblings. Monk's push and pull dynamic with his siblings bears some resemblance to the push and pull dynamic I've had with my siblings, [there's] an overbearing father figure in the novel, I have a very overbearing father figure. The ailing mother in the novel, my mother didn't die of Alzheimer [but] my mother died of cancer about eight years ago and, like Monk, I moved home to take care of her toward the end of her life.
"So there was just all this overlap... there's just so much of Monk's life [that] resembled my life that the more that I read the book it started to feel almost strange as to how how similar the two were. I was only about 50 pages into it before I realised that I wanted to try to adapt into a film, [it] sort of spoke to me immediately."
It was Jefferson's approach to Monk's quest to show the industry its failings towards telling BIPOC stories that Wright was most compelled by, with the actor saying that the film is "an open invitation to examine" these issues with a comedic twist.
"It was all very clear in the script," Wright says. "The tone, the humour, the irony. I think you're right, it's not solely about representation in film or in the publishing industry, it's about larger dynamic with misperception, not only of Black life, but of folks across backgrounds.
"The story really at its centre is about being fully seen for who you are and that's something that all of us, I think, can experience in our own ways, the desire to be authentic to ourselves and to be perceived that way."
"I think in that way, what's wonderful about the film is that it's an open invitation to examine that [is] through the lens of the Black experience, but not to restrict it to that."Jeffrey Wright
"Likewise, this element of the family, the heart and spirit of the film in many ways is a portrait of a family that is recognisable to anyone born of a family — the messiness, the inescapability, but at the end of the day, in spite of itself, the love," the actor goes on.
"And what Cord was able to do and what Percival was able to do in his book Erasure that our film is based on is to provide an invitation to what may be a difficult conversation around race and identity, and representation, but make it accessible, and make it even fun at times to go in and tackle this."
Jefferson, for his part, hopes that the film does start a conversation around this subject: "There was this TV writer named Norman Lear, who just recently died. For a long time Norman Lear was the king of satire in the United States and, after he died, I was listening to an interview with him and somebody asked him if he thinks that satire can change people's minds, and he said, 'I don't think that satire can change people's minds, but I think satire can cause people to think and in doing so they can change their own mind'.
"And so to me that's the hope for this movie, I wanted to make something that entertained people and allowed them to laugh and find some joy at the cinema, and leave with a smile on their face, but also cause them to maybe think a little bit and after they leave say 'hey, do you wanna go talk about what we just saw?' I think that that has been the most delightful thing."
"If we can accomplish that while also allowing people to have a good time, then I'm satisfied," he says.
American Fiction is out in cinemas nationwide now.
Watch the trailer for American Fiction: