Watching ‘American Fiction’ with TIFF Audience Was ‘Terrifying,’ Says Director Cord Jefferson

It’s probably unsurprising to hear that winning the Toronto International Film Festival’s prestigious People’s Choice Award is the prime reaction writer-director Cord Jefferson hoped his feature debut would get, but it was far from guaranteed. The film starring Jeffrey Wright is very a much commentary on the types of films that have haphazardly tackled Black issues and gone on to win the same award, like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” or “Green Book.”

In a conversation with IndieWire shortly after the premiere, Jefferson said watching his film with its first TIFF audience was “one of the most terrifying moments of my entire life.” Hearing of other Black audience members being hyper-aware of all the jokes about stereotypical Black protagonists quarreling with baby mamas and dealing crack cocaine to survive the streets as the film’s protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison writes a mock-novel that ends up being elevated in the most highbrow circles of the literary world made the director recall his own experience seeing “Django Unchained” surrounded by a white audience in LA. “I remember thinking, ‘Huh… Is this funny? Do I feel a certain kind of way about the fact that these people are laughing?’”

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Though “American Fiction” does not fall into the “tough to watch” category of films centered on Black Americans, it asks tough questions about why that is the only kind of Black representation that seems to be regarded in the highest esteem. To see his film be such a conversation piece at TIFF does make Jefferson feel like he has properly gotten its intention across to the audience. “The most exciting thing for me to hear has been people saying that when they left the theater, they couldn’t wait to talk about the movie with their friends and colleagues and sort of debate different points and say, ‘How did you feel about this scene? And how did you feel about this conversation?’ That to me, has been the most thrilling response because that’s what I wanted,” said Jefferson.

“My metric for great art is: Am I thinking about it days after I’ve seen it? Months after I’ve seen it? How frequently does this come to my mind after I’ve consumed this thing? And so it would break my heart if people came and saw the film and then left the theater going like, ‘Ok, that was fine. Where should we go to dinner? Let’s debate about that,’” said the first-time director.

Judging by the success of the TIFF People’s Choice Awards that have come before it, this win is just the beginning of what will be a long, fruitful road of filmgoers considering “American Fiction.”

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