Comment: The Oscar for 'American Fiction' shows that not all films by black directors have to be about violence and poverty


On an Oscar night that seemed to bounce mainly between the brilliant “Oppenheimer” and the strange “Poor Things,” the adapted screenplay award for Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” was a moment of triumph for black storytellers. The smart, compelling satire about a frustrated black academic and writer who finally capitulates to a thirst for stereotypical black-authored novels about gangs and life in the ghetto was based on the 2001 book “Erasure” by Percival Everett.

In his acceptance speech, Jefferson called on Hollywood to take more risks: “I understand that this is a risk-averse industry. I understand. But $200 million movies are also a risk, and it doesn't always work, but you take the risk anyway. And instead of making one $200 million movie, try making 20 $10 million movies, or 50 $4 million movies,” he said.

After many others passed away, someone took a chance on Jefferson, a first-time director. The result? A film with a budget of around $10 million (estimates vary) has grossed over $22 million so far and was nominated for five Oscars. In addition to Jefferson's nomination, the film earned a lead actor nomination for Jeffrey Wright, a supporting actor nomination for Sterling K. Brown, a music nomination for composer and musician Laura Karpman, and a best picture nomination. It is a quite critical journey.

The Times editorial board has always told Hollywood to give more opportunities to women and people of color, particularly as directors, actresses and writers. Here's another case where someone gave a first-time black writer and film director a chance and he succeeded without spending a king's ransom in the process.

And Jefferson's success has another lesson: stories about blacks (or Latinos or any other people of color) don't have to be about guns, gangs and drugs in order to sell them in Hollywood. That's not what diverse storytelling is about.

Backstage, speaking to reporters, Jefferson noted that not all films about black people have to be set on plantations or in projects, as he put it. “There is a market for depictions of black life that are as broad and deep as any other depiction of people's lives. “Does that make sense?” he asked.

It makes absolutely sense. It has long bothered me that the universe of the black experience on the big screen (TV is much better) seems to focus more often on poverty and violence. Do not misunderstand. The struggle is noble and generates compelling stories. But why can't I see black people (especially black women) playing complex characters in a multiracial world struggling to run a company, struggling as journalists to uncover dark secrets about a company, a church or a government, Or who struggle to understand life? after divorce while living in a fabulous house in the Hamptons?

Hollywood is slowly expanding its view on what kinds of stories non-white people can tell. Wright has had a long career playing rich and varied characters, like Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Viola Davis, among others. But it is a slow process. Too slow. If more talented filmmakers like Jefferson are given the chance to prove themselves with smart, interesting films that go beyond predictable themes and tropes about what black life is like, Hollywood and audiences will be better off.

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