Jeffrey Wright: Hiding in Plain Sight in Our Favorite Characters

A couple of years ago, Jeffrey Wright got an email from the screenwriter Cord Jefferson, who was preparing to direct his first film. Jefferson wanted Wright — a cerebral actor known for his commanding, indelible presence even in supporting roles — to star in “American Fiction,” his adaptation of Percival Everett’s mordant 2001 novel, “Erasure.”

“In the letter, Cord described how immediate and personal he found ‘Erasure’ to be,” Wright recalled recently. “And he said that he had begun to hear my voice in his head as he read the book. And then he said, ‘I have no Plan B.’”

Wright, who is 58, took the job. His exquisitely calibrated performance as the irascible novelist TheloniousEllison, known as Monk, recently earned him his first Oscar nomination. It is a recognition, among other things, of his ability to elevate any movie or TV show simply by appearing in it. He has a way of burrowing so deeply into his characters that he seems almost to be hiding in plain sight.

From the bracing opening scene of “American Fiction,” in which a slur appears on a blackboard as part of the title of a Flannery O’Connor short story Monk is teaching to a class of college students, the film wades into thorny issues of race, authenticity and what white audiences demand from Black artists — and has great satirical fun doing it.

“It’s a conversation that’s at the center of the national dialogue right now, but we lack a fluency in how we discuss race — gasp! — and history and language and context and identity,”Wright said. He was being interviewed at the Four Seasons in Manhattan before flying to Britain to receive the London Film Critics’ Circle’s top award.

While (obviously) the film doesn’t solve the problems it identifies, he said, at least it’s willing to engage with them.

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