2024 AFI Awards - Arrivals

Cord Jefferson arrives at the AFI Awards Friday at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, Calif.

At a family reunion in Tucson last summer, native Cord Jefferson gave his family a sneak peek at his film “American Fiction.”

Weeks later in September, the movie snagged the coveted People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, one of a half-dozen film festival awards it received before its theatrical release in December.

On Tuesday, the film, written and directed by the Canyon del Oro High School grad, was nominated for five Oscars including for best adapted screenplay.

“I just feel incredibly honored to be a part of this,” Jefferson said during a phone interview a day before the Oscar nominations were announced. “When you release anything, it’s a vulnerable experience, especially when it’s your first time. I was incredibly terrified putting this into the world and the fact that it’s received the reception that it has and that it has the momentum that it has is truly beyond my wildest dreams. I am just incredibly grateful.”

In addition to the Oscar screenplay nomination, “American Fiction” was nominated for best film, original score, lead actor Jeffrey Wright and supporting actor Sterling K. Brown.

“American Fiction” star Jeffrey Wright, shown with costar Erika Alexander in a scene from “American Fiction,” snagged an Oscar nomination for best actor. Tucsonan Cord Jefferson wrote and directed the movie.

“American Fiction” is among 10 best film nominees that includes the box office behemoth “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer,” “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Maestro.”

The 41-year-old Jefferson, who left Tucson for college in 2000, worked as a journalist including spending several years as the editor of Gawker before switching gears and writing for television in 2015.

He earned a Primetime Emmy Award for his work on the HBO limited series “Watchmen” in 2019 and wrote for the Netflix comedy “Master of None” and the NBC sitcom “The Good Place.”

In 2020, he read Percival Everett’s satirical novel “Erasure,” about a Black author’s attempt to mock the publishing world by writing a stereotypical “ghetto novel” that ends up becoming a bestseller. He was so intrigued with the story that he wrote the screenplay.

Initially, his producers told him he would have a hard time getting the film into any festivals last summer because of the number of movies being released.

“They told me to temper my expectations from even getting into film festivals let alone getting into Toronto and getting the audience award then getting nominated for Golden Globes,” said Jefferson.

“I was just hoping to get the movie made and like a handful of people to see it. I did not allow myself to dream this big,” said Jefferson, who regularly attended Arizona Theatre Company productions as a kid but never really considered a career in the arts.

“I never really saw myself as someone who could be an artist because I didn’t really know anybody who made art for a living,” he said. “I knew people who played in bar bands on the weekends. I knew people who painted as a hobby, but I didn’t really know anybody who made art for a living.”

In addition to Wright and Brown, “American Fiction” stars John Ortiz and Leslie Uggams. Tucson also has a minor role in the movie.

“In the book, Cliff (Brown) lives in Scottsdale. I was like, I don’t like Scottsdale. Let’s make it Tucson just because I do like Tucson; it’s where I grew up and I can make some funny Tucson references,” said Jefferson, who made his directing debut with the film.

He also gave a shoutout to some Tucson school buddies.

“All the fake names of the books at the end when the judges are judging books, they are all band names from my good friends’ bands. So all those are Tucson bands — Car Full of Bosnians, The Dishwashers, Little League — those were all my friends’ bands from middle school and high school,” he said. “There’s Tucson stuff throughout.”

The 96th Academy Awards will be presented March 10 from Hollywood.

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Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com. On Twitter @Starburch