Cord Jefferson’s rise from Gawker blogger to Oscar contender

Cord Jefferson’s rise from Gawker blogger to Oscar contender

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SAG HARBOR, N.Y. —

Cord Jefferson likes to joke that he’d never directed anything, not even traffic, before taking the reins on his first feature film, “American Fiction” — a biting satire of the publishing world and the limiting expectations White America places on Black artists, adapted from Percival Everett’s 22-year-old novel “Erasure,” that has launched into the awards season seemingly out of nowhere and is now being touted as a best picture nominee.

But on a beautiful early October afternoon at the Hamptons International Film Festival, traffic streaming out of “American Fiction” seemed to be directing itself just fine — straight to wherever Jefferson happened to be (in the lobby, on a sidewalk bench). The movie stars Jeffrey Wright as frustrated Black novelist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, who decides to write a parody of every stereotypically “Black” misery porn cliché he can think of and becomes a runaway literary sensation, much to his horror. (“Deadbeat dads, rappers, crack — you said you wanted Black stuff. That’s Black, right?” says Monk, calling his agent from his family’s beach house near Boston.)

The North American film festival circuit, made up of predominantly White audiences, is an interesting place to screen a movie that opens with a deliberate provocation: the n-word on a chalkboard. In a perfect introduction to the movie’s darkly comic tone, Monk tries to give a lecture about its use in a literary context, only to get pushback from a White student who’s so offended that she runs out of the classroom in tears.

“I wanted to give people permission to laugh at uncomfortable stuff,” Jefferson told me. “For me, it was more about establishing a tone for the film upfront. It’s like, ‘Yeah, this is maybe going to make you a little uncomfortable. But also you can laugh at this stuff. Like, this stuff is ridiculous.”

During test screenings, Jefferson said, audience members struggled to name the movie’s genre. Dark comedy? Dramedy? Like Everett’s book, the movie is grounded in Monk’s family life: loss of a sibling, a mother with Alzheimer’s (Leslie Uggams), a complicated relationship with a plastic surgeon brother who just came out (an electrifying Sterling K. Brown). Whatever the tone, it’s a hit. After its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, “American Fiction” scooped up the coveted People’s Choice Award, prompting its studios, Orion and Amazon MGM, to bump its release date from Nov. 3 to Dec. 15 (it opens in D.C. on Dec. 22), which means better opportunities to build word of mouth and awards prospects. This week, it received two Golden Globe nominations (for best picture and a best actor nod for Wright).

End of carousel

When Jefferson walked into that Sag Harbor theater for the Q&A, to enthusiastic applause all around, I counted 12 people standing up — everyone Black in the room, in what seemed like a clear illustration of who felt most comfortable physically showing their praise and who wasn’t quite sure how to react. Most of the Black audience members who stuck around later told me they worked in creative fields and had made the 2½-hour trip from the city just to see that movie. “I was so happy, and then I started crying and just before I can get the tears, I’m laughing again!” said Felicia Hardon, a professor of film production at the City University of New York.

And throughout it all was a parade of people complimenting him on a single line. Midway through the movie, Monk, deep in his Stagg R. Leigh persona (his alias for his parody novel), tells his book publisher, “I’m sure White people on the Hamptons will delight in it.” “Yes, we will,” she replies. It was actually an ad-lib from Wright, and it killed in the room. Jefferson didn’t see the reaction; he can’t sit through the movie anymore because he’ll go too nuts thinking about what he should change. But he graciously listened to and thanked everyone who came up to him.

“It did seem like the White people in the Hamptons loved it,” he told me, delighted.

Within minutes of meeting up, Jefferson is directing me, away from my ideas of how I thought this interview might go (wandering through historic houses, checking out a whaling museum) and toward his much-preferred activity (grabbing two slices of pizza and sitting on a bench on Main Street). Jefferson, 41, may be on his way to becoming a Hollywood big shot, but right now he’s still at the level where he can go out to a dive bar with festival staff and spend the whole night watching a game where people try to get a ring on a string onto a hook. He laughs, recalling the staffers’ shocked reaction. “I was like, ‘Oh, you guys must get, like, real Hollywood people who unless it’s Chateau Marmont are like, ‘NO.’”

Chomping away on that pizza, he’s wearing a faded Stone Roses T-shirt, a vintage red plaid Polo bomber jacket that he casually mentions he bought in Paris on his way back from Switzerland, and a fat ring that covers up one of his 21 tattoos, indeed the first one he ever got when he was 22, while drunk at 3 a.m., on a friend’s band’s tour bus. It has two skulls on either end of the letters “MSC,” which stands for Mommy’s Skull Club and is a joke only he and his high school friends get. (“I wear the ring because I think a hand tattoo is very aggro.”) Among the rest are an illustration of James Baldwin’s face and the title of the Cure song “Boys Don’t Cry.” “My tattoo aesthetic is bathroom stall,” Jefferson explained.

If you know who Jefferson is, you probably learned of his existence, like every other American with eyes and a healthy libido, when he and Damon Lindelof won a 2020 Emmy for writing the Hooded Justice origin story episode, “The Extraordinary Being,” for HBO’s “Watchmen.” It was September of that fateful year, the pandemic was raging and the ceremony had been canceled, so Jefferson, all 6-foot-3 of him, gave a speech in a tux from Lindelof’s home. There was a certain amount of symbolism to Jefferson being part of that win, and to Lindelof ceding the floor to him, for a supernatural series rooted in the 1921 Tulsa Massacre that had aired during the summer of protests over George Floyd’s murder. During the speech, Jefferson thanked his therapist and declared “therapy should be free in this country!”

To say Twitter became immediately thirsty would be an understatement.

Lindelof — the creator of “Lost” — shockingly had never won a writing Emmy until that night, and he found himself entirely eclipsed by the internet’s surging interest in Jefferson. “I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I got more emails that night and the following morning asking me about Cord and his availability — then it was like, ‘Oh, P.S. Congratulations,’” said Lindelof, laughing.

Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Monk’s sister Lisa in “American Fiction,” said she, too, looked him up after that Emmys speech. “I loved that episode and thought he should have won for that episode, and then he mentioned his therapist and I was like, ‘Who is this man?” (She said it was purely professional, but that she learned enough then to be thrilled when Jefferson reached out for “American Fiction.”)

Jefferson’s path to that moment is one of the more unique in showbiz. Before “American Fiction,” before he found himself writing for a murderers’ row of prestige TV shows (“Watchmen,” “Succession,” “The Good Place,” “Master of None,” “Station Eleven”), Jefferson spent his 20s in the trenches of online journalism, churning out music reviews and satirical essays, and covering what he later called “The Racism Beat” for places like The Root and Good Magazine. His last job in media was as Gawker’s West Coast Editor (a title that just meant he didn’t want to move to New York), and he nearly got an Apple TV Plus show off the ground about his time there. If “American Fiction” gets anywhere near the Oscars, he might just be the biggest journalism-to-Hollywood success story ever.

“Oh, come on! David Simon! It’s got to be David Simon!” said Jefferson when I suggested such a thing.

Okay, the biggest millennial blogger-to-Hollywood success story.

Growing up the son of a Black lawyer and a White teacher, first in Saudi Arabia (where the family moved for his father’s work) and then Tucson (ditto), Jefferson didn’t have much modeling for what a life in the arts might look like. “For me, being an artist was a thing that, like, rich people in New York and L.A. and Paris and Rome did,” Jefferson said. “It wasn’t something for me.”

In Tucson, he’d been one of 30 or 40 Black kids in a majority-Latino school system. Racism hadn’t come into play much in his childhood except from his mother Susan’s family in Akron, Ohio. When she’d married his father, Wilson, whom she’d met as her divorce lawyer, her family disowned her. “My mother was raised in a very, very racist environment,” Jefferson said. “She used to tell me that her father was such a bigot that he would say, ‘You better not marry an Irishman, or a Jewish person.’ Imagine somebody saying, ‘Don’t marry an Irishman,’ and then you marry a Black man.” Her father told her he never wanted her in their lives again. As an 8-year-old, Jefferson wrote a few letters to his grandparents in crayon, all of which were returned unopened.

After the fourth or fifth returned letter, Jefferson stopped sending them and started thinking of his grandparents as dead.

His conversations with his mother about all of this, he said, have permeated everything he does. “I think what my mother went through is in basically everything I work on,” Jefferson said. “I think she gave me my early understanding of just like, ‘Oh, this is pointless, the idea that somebody’s race is more important than the fact that they’re a human being.’”

As he’s been sorting through his life in therapy, he’s sure that early rejection from his own blood must have permeated into his psyche, and it is probably partly responsible for the uncontrollable anger he carried with him to William & Mary, his father’s alma mater. He studied sociology but mainly drank and skipped class a lot, all while joining a fraternity, which is still a strange fact about him, according to many of his friends. “It’s a strange thing to me, too!” Jefferson said. “I was an 18-year-old boy, and I wanted to meet girls and drink beers.”

He also got into a ton of fights. “I’ve never punched anybody, but I was getting punched a lot. I was very confrontational and angry.” Looking back, he’s come to the conclusion that he was getting racially bullied, often by members of his own predominantly White frat. There was the kid who grabbed him by the lapels and called him “a Black bastard,” and then later peed on his shoes at a urinal. The football player who screamed, “What the f— race are you anyway?” and then dragged him into a bathroom and knocked him out. He’d often cry in the shower for no reason. It wasn’t until he started seeing his current therapist that he realized he has clinical depression (something his mother first gently pointed out when he was 18). His 40th birthday present to himself was to go on Zoloft, and his 41st birthday present was to start smoking weed, usually with his girlfriend while watching horror movies. He said both have changed his life.

A lot of what he’s been doing in therapy lately, he told me, is working through those college years, and also years of anger at his dad for being so closed off all his life, for drinking so much and behaving so erratically that Jefferson believed it tore his parents’ marriage apart. Their relationship was still strained when Wilson, after two years on dialysis, sent a heartfelt, humbled email to Jefferson and his two brothers. “He sort of sheepishly said, ‘I’m really sorry to ask you guys about this, but the donor list for kidneys is long and would the three of you consider donating a kidney to me?’” said Jefferson. All three immediately said yes, but Jefferson was 26 and the only one without kids who could take four months off to move to Saudi Arabia for all the medical tests.

“We weren’t necessarily on great terms, but the thing is, I didn’t want him to suffer or die,” said Jefferson. Father and son grew closer, particularly after Susan’s death to cancer in 2015. Wilson was Cord’s date to his Emmys win, and to his “American Fiction” premiere at TIFF.

“I think she gave me my early understanding of just like, ‘Oh, this is pointless, the idea that somebody’s race is more important than the fact that they’re a human being.’”

Much of Jefferson’s anger and resentment has dissipated, but it still bubbles up sometimes, and if that happens, Jefferson told me he has a “practice” of thinking about a photograph of his dad that he recently discovered.

It’s of Wilson, now 81, on the ship heading toward his first tour in Vietnam. He’s just a young Black man in his early 20s — somehow a captain, a commander of other men — fast asleep on a cot in his underwear, with a rifle draped across his chest. “I look at that picture and it’s like, he’s just a kid,” Jefferson said. “His brain’s not fully developed yet. And he has no idea what awaits him. I look at that and I’m overcome with so much sympathy for him, and this wall of anger that I feel toward him just melts away.”

At Gawker, Jefferson penned long-form essays about Black atheism and why poverty was worse for kids than crack, until MSNBC’s Chris Hayes noticed a piece he’d written in July 2013 about a “White riot” at a surfing competition in Huntington Beach, Calif. Hayes invited him to do a satirical segment on his show, to play an outraged pundit spoofing language the media often uses to criticize civil unrest and “Black-on-Black crime.” Jefferson talked about the horrors of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Hoboken, N.J., and called on “White leadership” like Justin Bieber and Rush Limbaugh to condemn it.

The segment went viral and caught the attention of Jermaine Johnson, a manager at 3 Arts Entertainment, who took him out to dinner. They still work together. When Jefferson reached out to Wright for “American Fiction,” the actor recognized him from that news parody all those years back. “He was doing a mockery of this [White] hooliganism, and I thought it was pretty funny,” Wright said. But he’d never seen any of his TV work.

Also paying attention was Mike O’Malley (a.k.a. Burt Hummel on “Glee”), who had just created the Starz show “Survivor’s Remorse,” a comedy about the NBA, with LeBron James as executive producer. O’Malley called Jefferson on a Friday and asked if he’d start in the writers’ room on Monday.

“I think we all thought — I can say this now — that he was going to be back at Gawker in less than a year,” said Max Read, former editor in chief of Gawker, who co-created the ill-fated Gawker TV show with Jefferson. “Obviously, that didn’t happen.”

“I’m sure there’s a movie [to be made] about a young Black writer who has lost every job to Cord who’s, like, secretly stalking him,” said Aziz Ansari, who hired Jefferson to write for Season 2 of “Master of None.” There, Jefferson used his journalistic chops to interview subjects for the “New York, I Love You” episode, which centers on a doorman, a taxi driver and a woman who is deaf.

Jefferson credits Ansari with first giving him the idea to direct seven years ago. “I was just like, ‘I didn’t go to film school. I don’t know anything about cameras, lenses.’ And he was like, ‘I went to NYU and got a business degree,’” Jefferson recalled.

And so when Read told Jefferson about his idea to make a TV show about their time at Gawker, which had collapsed in 2016 in the wake of a successful Hulk Hogan lawsuit, Jefferson saw his chance to break out of writers’ rooms.

“I wanted to give people permission to laugh at uncomfortable stuff.”

— Cord Jefferson

The pair sold the show to Apple TV Plus in 2018, and two years later, it was finally coming together. Now called “Scraper” and based on a fictional site set in the blog heyday of 2010, it featured a Black protagonist surrounded by figures you might recognize. As Read described them: “an imperious, slightly standoffish British founder and publisher and a puckish editor and a bunch of burnout bloggers.” Workplace conflicts would bleed into personal conflicts set against the larger rise of social media in the background.

“We wrote all eight episodes. I think it’s very good. I’m very proud of it,” said Jefferson, pointing out that no studio would let a writers’ room get that far if they weren’t planning on making the show. But, before the year was over, Apple CEO Tim Cook had pulled the plug. As detailed by Ben Smith in the New York Times, Cook had gotten wind that his company was making a series on a media company that, among other things, had outed him as gay.

Jefferson said he doesn’t definitively know what happened but he believes Smith’s reporting, and that it was particularly dispiriting because the show was hardly a glorification of Gawker. “The show was about a tabloid website like Gawker the way that ‘Mad Men’ was about advertising,” he said. When that show got killed, after five years of development and 20 weeks in a writers’ room, it felt like hope was lost. “I felt so close,” Jefferson said. “And it had been such an uphill battle constantly. And it was like, ‘Okay, well, I guess I’m back to square one then.’”

It was over winter break in 2020, at his absolute nadir, that Jefferson first heard about “Erasure” while reading another book review.

Twenty pages in, he said, he knew he wanted to adapt it into a film. Fifty pages in, he started reading Monk in Jeffrey Wright’s voice. The book was published in 2001, but so much of it felt relevant today. “I related to it so much,” Jefferson said. “Themes of what it means to be a creative of color bumping up against people’s expectations of what you can and can’t make.”

Looking back, he thought Hollywood would be a break from “the revolving door of misery and tragedy” he had covered as a Black journalist, only to feel pigeonholed again. “I was so excited when I got into film and television because I was like, ‘Great, these are fictional worlds. I can write about aliens and unicorns and anything I want to,’” he said. “And then people would come to me and say, ‘Hey, you want to write about this slave? You want to write about this crack addict?’ It’s frustrating, but it’s also painful because, to me, what that suggests is that there’s this inability to see Black people’s lives as ones with breadth and depth and interiority.”

Once Everett gave Jefferson his blessing, the next task was getting Wright onboard. “He sent me a lovely note along with the script. I think he said, ‘I have no plan B,’” said Wright, chuckling. “So, there was a specificity to his vision, that the character of Monk was me. I was intrigued and I guess, you know, somewhat flattered by that.”

Wright’s commitment, Jefferson said, turned the project legitimate for everyone else. Actors like Ross, Brown, John Ortiz and Uggams signed on because they wanted to work with Wright. Financiers gave more money (it was still made for under $10 million over 26 days, shot in Boston, which was the cheapest city they could find where a literary agent might believably live). According to everyone I talked to, Jefferson was a natural at directing, so cool and collected that Ansari got concerned. “It was making me mad,” Ansari said. “I was like, ‘Goddammit, Cord, you should be pulling your hair out.’”

How will “American Fiction” be received outside of the rarefied world of film festivals and Jefferson’s Hollywood friends? Will people around America actually laugh at that opening n-word joke? Can it, in an election year, get people to have a little fun talking about race? Wright told me he has seen the trailer pop up on right-leaning blog sites that he didn’t think would be interested in this story, and it feels encouraging — that perhaps they’ve created something that allows for different perspectives across our national chasm to share and discuss, even if it’s only for a few minutes in the lobby after the film.

It makes me think of Jefferson responding to White audience members in the Hamptons who said they had no idea they’d have so much fun at a movie that is, essentially, skewering them. “I didn’t want it to be maudlin,” Jefferson said. “I wanted to highlight the fact that, yeah, these are serious issues, but we don’t need to be so serious about them. And in fact, we have to find ways to laugh. We can’t be miserable all the time. I think just as human beings, we have to find joy or else all is lost.”

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