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Sterling K Brown on black representation in Oscar-nominated American Fiction

Oscar nominee Sterling K Brown has said he hopes his new film American Fiction will help to “shift the needle” on how black people are viewed.

Cord Jefferson’s comedic satire follows exasperated black author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, played by Jeffrey Wright, who jokingly writes a book under a pseudonym that plays up to racial stereotypes to make a point, only to find publishers offering the biggest advance he has ever seen.

Brown is nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Ellison’s brother Cliff, who is navigating his own personal struggles including their mother’s declining health, while Wright picked up a best actor nod.

The US stars have already made Academy Award history as it is the first time two black actors have been nominated in the supporting and lead acting categories for the same movie.

Brown told the PA news agency that he feels their record-breaking moment “could have happened a long time ago” but that he is “happy” to be a part of it and hopes the critical acclaim will draw more attention to the film.

The comedy drama, based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, has received five Oscar nominations in total including nods for best motion picture, best adapted screenplay and best score alongside Brown and Wright’s nominations.

“I think it’s a beautiful, important, hysterical story, and the more that folks see it, I think it will shift the needle in terms of the way in which people see black people in general in the world”, Brown said.

Reflecting on the message of the film, he said it explores how “the prism through which black life in America has been seen is a very narrow one”.

He continued: “It usually has to do with some sort of trauma, overcoming pain, adversity, and that’s the nature of a lot of trauma, but it seems to be particularly strong with regards to how the black experience is depicted.

“Whether it is slave narratives, where it’s stories of the inner city and overcoming deadbeat dads and drug-addicted mums etc etc. Are those things part of our story? Absolutely. Are they the totality of our story? Absolutely not.”

London Critics Circle Film Awards – London
Jeffrey Wright has been nominated for the best actor Academy Award (Ian West/PA)

Brown said he feels studio bosses may think those stories are the only ones a mainstream audience can “resonate with” as they will think “they’re so brave, they’re so beautiful”.

However, he notes that their film challenges this by depicting an “upwardly mobile family” of black doctors and a professor who still have their own problems that are “just as real for anybody else as they are for us”.

“So getting a chance to expand that breadth of experience of what black life looks like, I think that’s what we’re trying to do”, he added.

Discussing what he feels the industry can do to move representation forward, the actor said there needs to be more chances taken on minority storytellers.

“Being diverse and telling diverse stories automatically means, and Cord has said this on a few occasions, it means taking a risk”, he explained.

“It means so often that when there are white filmmakers and storytellers and if the show or the story that they’re telling doesn’t catch on with a large audience, the success that we often get to see from the outside is that they receive another opportunity to fail.

“So I think that real progress looks like minority and diverse filmmakers and storytellers getting a chance and having a chance to fail, and knowing that they get another chance.

“That doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily the case right now. So that’s why we’re very precious with the opportunities that we have because you don’t know how many times you’re going to get to be at that.”

British Academy Film Awards 2024
Cord Jefferson with Kingsley Ben-Adir and Bryce Dallas Howard after American Fiction won the best adapted screenplay award at the Baftas (Ian West/PA)

American Fiction has already picked a number of gongs this season including best adapted screenplay at the Bafta Film Awards last month.

Brown, also known for roles in The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story and This Is Us, also received nods at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards and Critics’ Choice Movie Awards for his portrayal in American Fiction.

The father-of-two revealed that his youngest son congratulated him with a “big hug” when he received his Oscar nod, which is his first, but that his eldest son tried to keep him humble.

He recalled that after he got his SAG nomination his eldest told him to come back to him when he got an Oscar nomination.

When he returned to his son when he got the Academy Award nod, the actor said: “He was like “Oh, for real?’ and you can see his brain trying to come up with another smart alec thing to say and ultimately he’s just like ‘Congratulations’ and it was very sweet.”

Brown will face tough competition for the Academy Award as he will go up against Robert De Niro for his role in western crime thriller Killers Of The Flower Moon, Robert Downey Jr for his of Lewis Strauss in Christopher Nolan’s epic biopic Oppenheimer, Ryan Gosling for his depiction of Ken in blockbuster Barbie and Mark Ruffalo for his starring role in dark comedy Poor Things.