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Member Voices

New Black Narratives

Black writers reflect on the direction of Black art.

By 2014 it had become “spiritually difficult” for journalist Cord Jefferson to be repeatedly assigned so-called “Black” stories—stories about slaves and murdered teens that turned his writing life into a hamster wheel of despair. 

Excited to transition to writing for film and television, Jefferson thought, “We can write about Black people on the moon. We can write about Black people in the underworld. We can write about anything we want.”

Cord Jefferson. Photo by Dennis Gocer

He was asked to write about slavery and Black kids killed by white cops.

No wonder that he responded so strongly, in December of 2020, when he happened upon Erasure, Percival Everett’s 2001 satire about Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, whose lofty novels were tanking because they weren’t “Black” enough. The embittered Monk sets out to parody best-selling Black literature in a novel he titles My Pathology, revising that to My Pafology, then simply settling on Fuck. The book’s rapturous success forces the appalled Monk, a literary snob, to adopt a thug’s persona to promote it.

Unlike Monk’s writing career, Jefferson’s was thriving when he spent four months adapting Erasure into the script he titled American Fiction, an artful play on words that alludes to the publishing world, and also, perhaps, to the fiction white America chooses to spin about Black lives and its own damning history.

Granted, Scraper, the Apple TV+ series Jefferson created, had just been killed, devastating him. But that year the WGAW member had also won two shared Writers Guild Awards, for Succession and Watchmen, plus an Emmy, shared with show creator and WGAW member Damon Lindelof, for the Watchmen episode “This Extraordinary Being.” At last, in 2023, when American Fiction won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, Jefferson, who also directed, was propelled out of the revolving door of Black trauma. The film has since been nominated for five Oscars, including Adapted Screenplay.

Getting Meta

“It had to be funny,” Jefferson says about adapting Everett’s much grimmer book through a writing process he describes as always “slow and painful, like dental work.” That meant his adaptation would eliminate references to Hitler, a father with a second family, and an abortion clinic murder that would have changed American Fiction’s tone. “There was a lot of metatextual stuff going on in the novel, and so I felt like I needed to include some of the meta stuff into the film.”

The result: A comedy about writing as much as it is about race and class, skewering the publishing industry, movies, and television for their eager embrace of racist clichés.

“There’s this set of preconceived notions as to what a Black story is,” Jefferson says. “But I do think that there are people out there who are doing real work to try to change things.”

With American Fiction renewing and continuing the ongoing cultural conversation about the depiction of people of color, Written by asked a handful of Black writers for their thoughts on how far the industry has come and where it needs to go.

Raamla Mohamed. Photo by Joshua Kissi

Her awareness of the traditional lack of depth for Black women protagonists, and the desire not to put Black people on pedestals of piety, helped propel WGAW member Raamla Mohamed to create Hulu’s Reasonable Doubt. A juicy legal thriller, the Hulu series focuses on flawed-to-the-point-of-recklessness criminal defense attorney Jax Stewart. 

“She can quote legal briefs, but also if a Juvenile song came on, she can twerk it,” says Mohamed, a shared Writers Guild Award nominee for Little Fires Everywhere. “The way Black women particularly are portrayed, it’s like you’re either Michelle Obama, or you’re Megan Thee Stallion. When we do that, we say that one person is good and one person is bad. So I think it’s dangerous to not understand that people can be both.”

The code-switching Jax behaves one way in the boardroom and another in a private life that includes liberal, affectionate use of the N-word. Mohamed did not need to clear this with her all-Black writers’ room.

“Shows that use the N-word are about drugs and poverty,” she points out. “Shows that are about more of an upscale Black experience, they don’t use it. I went to an Ivy League school, and I grew up in an upper-class/upper-middle-class area of Los Angeles, a Black area. And yeah, people use the N-word. I want this to be a show that everyone can relate to.”

There’s this set of preconceived notions as to what a Black story is, but I do think that there are people out there who are doing real work to try to change things.

- Cord Jefferson

Horror Show

WGAW member Jordan Reddout climbed from predominately white comedy rooms to co-showrunner of Hulu’s The Other Black Girl. A satire with supernatural elements, the show’s concerns about a racist publishing world reflect those of American Fiction. In a pivotal Episode 1 moment, assistant Nella, who is Black, is humiliated by a disloyal Black colleague after she confronts a best-selling white author over his stereotyping of a Black woman. 

Jordan Reddout. Photo by Adam Tyree

Reddout once experienced a similar dressing-down when she criticized the direction in which a Black character was going. 

“I said, ‘We’re getting into Magical Negro territory.’ But that was incendiary,” she remembers. “My first experiences with tokenism, racism, microaggressions, like Nella, I think started a long time ago because I was a Black woman who did classical music, and there are not many of us.”

Still, she remains hopeful that what she experienced is less likely to happen since the country’s post-George Floyd racial awakening. And it’s unlikely to happen in The Other Black Girl writers’ room, which is 80 percent Black women.

“It is very sad and frightening, the frequency with which we all experience things like this,” Reddout says. “I genuinely hope that through our efforts with the strike, we are able to keep the doors open for young, diverse voices. I think people are going to have to make a conscious effort to promote people, and to mentor people, because it is so, so important in giving people at the bottom the tools to advance their careers.” 

The White Gaze

Julian Breece. Photo by Colton Haynes

At the start of his career, after attending Harvard and the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Julian Breece shopped his script about New York’s gay ballroom scene. When that didn’t sell, an agent urged him to write a cop drama—“with white lead characters, sneaking in Black lead characters as well, which you felt like you had to do at that time,” Breece says.

The WGAW member persevered, and landed two dream projects: an upcoming Alvin Ailey biopic to be directed by Barry Jenkins, and Rustin (where Breece has a story by credit and shares the screenplay credit with Dustin Lance Black), the first narrative feature from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company. 

Rustin tells the story of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin through the arc of the 1963 March on Washington. Openly gay, Rustin inspired his friend Martin Luther King, Jr. to become a leader, schooling him in Gandhian nonviolence, only to be publicly distanced after Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. threatened to spread unfounded rumors about Rustin and King’s relationship. 

“It’s really important for me to write Black characters and Black stories that feel authentic and sort of outside of the white gaze,” says Breece. “I feel like we’ve fallen into a space now where Black stories feel like they are being written to be consumed for others: Black stories that are explaining the Black experience to other people, as opposed to us just being able to write stories where Black people exist within their own narrative, telling universal stories.”

This is a particularly American double consciousness to Breece, “having to write either to white people our angst about how we’re perceived, or apologizing for who we are—two poles that I really do think are stifling Black art.”


Ava DuVernay

Despite a lengthy career that has earned her Emmy, BAFTA, Critics Choice, Spirit and Image awards, three Humanitas prizes, and an Oscar nomination, WGAW member Ava DuVernay says that studios don’t come to her. With the exception of A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay’s projects have been self-generated, which has allowed her to escape requests to perpetuate demeaning tropes about Black life. 

With Origin, a film she financed outside the studio system, DuVernay (the film’s writer and director) connects slavery, the Holocaust, and India’s discrimination against its Dalit class. Her jumping-off point was journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Caste

Not reluctant to show brutality at a time when politicians are whitewashing the evils of slavery, banning books, and limiting the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community, DuVernay nonetheless struggled to write her film. After a year, she tossed everything and started again. While Wilkerson researched and wrote, she had battled personal tragedies that were not in her book. Those tragedies, DuVernay realized, were her way into the screenplay.

“I really had to give myself permission to work outside of the standard three-act structure, permission not to beat myself up that there wasn’t a very clearly defined antagonist,” DuVernay says. “If you ask, ‘Who is the villain in this film?,’ it’s a long silence. The villain is all of us; it’s humanity. But humanity can’t take you down the street and pull out the gun and say mean things.”

As for change in Hollywood, DuVernay is skeptical. “Trends are not change,” she says. “There is a burst of one film by a Black director that does well here, or one film by an Asian director that does well, but change in terms of the actual, systemic, kind of molecular structure of our industry that…supports, markets, uplifts films at a certain level for voices that are not right down the middle is not what’s happening. We can sit and we can wring our hands about it, or we can continue on to some other path, and that’s what I’ve chosen to do.”

Other Voices, Other Lives

As scathing as American Fiction is in reflecting pop culture’s depiction of Black lives, Jefferson wasn’t looking to police Black art when he set out to write it. 

“Slavery is a part of American history, a big part of Black history in this country, but so is being president of the United States now,” he says. “Between slave and president, there are millions of other stories that we could be telling about Black people. There are just so many other facets of our lives, and I think that the more important thing isn’t saying, ‘Let’s stop making these movies and find other stories to tell.’ No, absolutely not. I just think, Let's find new stories to tell alongside those other ones.”

February 8, 2024

3rd & Fairfax: Hilliard Guess speaks with Cord Jefferson on the WGAW podcast

Plus, WGAW member Jasmyne Peck speaks with educators Peter Gamble and Dara Resnik about how USC’s Adjunct Faculty Alliance is organizing to improve their pay and working conditions.

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