Jeffrey Wright ’87 Talks Black Representation on Film

Oscar Nominee Jeffrey Wright ’87 talked to Diego Duckenfield-Lopez ’24 and Aidan Gemme ’26 about his new film “American Fiction” and its exploration of Black identity.

Jeffrey Wright ’87 Talks Black Representation on Film
Jeffrey Wright ’87 was nominated for Best Actor for his performance in “American Fiction,” in which he explores modern culture’s hypocritical obsession with racial stereotypes. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Wright.

Oscar nominee Jeffrey Wright ’87 sat down with Diego Duckenfield-Lopez ’24 to discuss his new movie “American Fiction,” for which he was nominated Best Actor, and its significance to the history of Black representation on-screen.

Diego Duckenfield-Lopez: Congratulations on your Best Actor nomination for “American Fiction.” Does this nomination feel any different from previous awards and recognition you’ve received? What was your reaction?

Jeffrey Wright: I think there is. What's wonderful about the Oscars is that the nominations are determined in large part by peers. So this is an acknowledgement from my fellow actors and colleagues that they think that we did good work and that I deserve recognition in this way. It’s always wonderful when your peers appreciate your work. That said, this award is not solely about the quality of one’s work. There are actors and films out this year that are absolutely beautiful, that didn’t receive the level of recognition that we’ve received. The difference with this is that we have enjoyed such incredible support from the powers that be behind our film. You can do great work, but if you don’t have these combined efforts behind the scenes, to make sure that work finds a space in the pop culture landscape, then you’re just doing good work.

DD: I saw a video where Letterboxd interviewed you and asked you about your favorite films. You mentioned Bert Williams and his film “Natural Born Gambler.” He’s someone I’ve read about who was part of this really weird phenomenon of Black-on-Black minstrelsy. This touches on some of the major themes of “American Fiction,” where we see a Black artist forced to fit their narrative into a very limited idea of a Black experience. Do you feel like Black actors are still limited in the roles they can play?

JW: I don’t think that our film narrows its critique to the publishing world and the filmmaking world alone. In “American Fiction,” Monk is a writer challenged by an under-appreciation from publishers. But I think that is just a platform for a larger conversation about misperception and misunderstanding of identity. I also think that the film is not solely about the Black experience; it’s the experience of any creative person who feels unseen or under-appreciated. We all want to be acknowledged for our authentic selves and appreciated for who we are. That said, there is a history in America of misrepresentation of Black life on film.

Black representation on film and representation generally begins with Bert Williams. He made his first full-length film before Charlie Chaplin made his first short. W.C. Fields said that he was the funniest man he ever saw and the saddest man he ever knew. Williams was very well known — he was a huge star in his own right. There is no way that Charlie Chaplin was not aware of his work. While Chaplin is a global icon and very few people know of Williams, Williams is closer to the beginning of cinema in America than Chaplin. But he was a Black man.

Williams once said, “I’ve found no disgrace in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient in America.” What Williams does is play his interpretation of the minstrel. He’s a Black man commenting on the absurdity and tragedy of the circumstances under which he must perform. There’s political social commentary woven into everything that he does.

We had a screening of “American Fiction” in D.C. at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History. During the Q&A, the moderator, a curator at the museum, said that he could see a parallel between Bert Williams and my performance in “American Fiction,” which I had not considered until that night. But the film absolutely harkens back to the idea of having to lessen one’s potency and power as a means of ascending and of survival.

There’s an element of that in Monk’s circumstances, although the impetus behind the choice is not necessarily so independent. He’s not totally hypocritical or cynical, he also has responsibilities to family that lead him to this choice. But nonetheless, he puts on a mask in order to be received, just as Bert Williams was forced to do over 100 years ago. The story goes on but the circumstances are different.

I’ve come to appreciate when I study people like Williams that we enjoy freedoms now that they might not have even imagined. Our freedom has been won for us by the generations that came before. It would be ridiculous for me to complain about limitations of my possibilities now when a man like Williams had little choice but to perform in blackface. The only reason I might complain is if I wasn’t aware of the history. I’ve tried to control the things that I can control. Zora Neale Hurston has wonderful quote about this: “No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” In many respects, my work is my oyster knife. And if it’s well sharpened, I can open a lot of shells with it. So yeah, I have no complaints.

DD: I’m currently writing a thesis about blaxploitation and its influence on hip hop, and how both have constructed models of Black masculinity. As Richard Roundtree [considered to be the first Black action hero] passed away this year, and I know you worked on the reboot of “Shaft,” I’m curious about your experience remaking a film so iconic to the history of African American films. Has your view of Black stories, and what kind of stories can be told, changed since then?

JW: When “Shaft” came out, it was a massive explosion in the culture. Not only the film but also the score. Richard Roundtree was for a time the apex of Black masculinity, particularly on film. And then there was “Superfly” which came out sometime after. You make an interesting observation in terms of the ways in which culture informs behaviors, because if you look at 1930s gangster films it’s said that these films informed the behavior of the Italian mob bosses  at the time — not the other way around. Those films created persona. As for the impact on me, I think that I’ve always been able to separate culture and reality. But what are your thoughts, young Duckenfield?

DD: The central argument of my thesis is that Blaxploiation films popularized a hypermasculine Black archetype in the 70s that was later adopted by gangsta rappers in the 90s, making the archetype so ubiquitous that it became indistinguishable from reality and synonymous with authentic Black masculinity. In my research, I focus mainly on Rudy Ray Moore, because he had a big influence on a lot of L.A. rappers. Snoop Dogg said something along the lines of: “There would be no Snoop Dogg without Rudy Ray Moore.” This was because Snoop Dogg’s pimp persona was directly influenced by these films he saw, like “The Mack” and “Willie Dynamite,” but especially Moore’s “Dolemite,” which was the apex of the over-the-top expression and confidence that gangsta rappers were drawn to. And as we know, one of the big things about gangsta rap is the idea of authenticity.

Even though people like Snoop Dogg aren’t necessarily living these lives, they're creating a story that says, “This is the truth of what it’s like to live in the ghetto as a Black American.” As a result, people see this as the truth and people will take on that persona, because they think that it will prove their Blackness. I felt this pressure a lot growing up and attending predominately White institutions, which is part of my interest in this, since I often got the comment,”You’re not really Black.” And in my mind I’d say, “What do you mean, I'm not really Black?”

JW: Cut to “American Fiction.”

DD: Exactly. I think it’s all connected in that sense; people learn from what they are told, and Black people take on the gangster persona as a way to prove themselves. I think there is also something inherently inspirational about these stories that the blaxploitation filmmakers were telling as they made films with Black heroes which had never been done before in Hollywood. And they subvert the American Dream. They’re saying, “If we’re not going to be allowed into these legitimate institutions through legitimate ways to make money, we’re going to make it on our own, and we’re gonna shove it in your face. We’re not going to be respectful about it.”

JW: I think it’s interesting when those images and personas cross over and are accepted outside their initial target audience. The question becomes, why are those representations so greedily received, and perceived to be authentically Black? It goes back to the origins of representation, when Black faces were the most popular thing in entertainment but only in minstrel shows. The reason that it's popularized among certain audiences, white audiences, is because it can be perceived as beneath them. Because it’s controllable in that way. And therefore, it’s palatable.

This remains relevant in the past few decades, in the spread of certain types of imagery and music. People adopt behaviors even though they may be outside of that community because they think it’s cool, but also because it’s not really dangerous. It’s not challenging any preconceptions. And so therefore, it can be received. The early blackface minstrels were hugely popular because it was ridicule that white audiences could look down on.

Do you know where blackface originated in America? The first blackface minstrel was this White guy, T.D. Rice. He first saw blackface at a British touring company’s production of “Othello,” with the lead actor playing the moor in blackface in the mid-19th century. I came across an article about an incident at the University of Michigan, I think three years ago, in which a teacher was forced to step down from teaching a class on adapting classical text into opera, because he had the audacity to show Olivier as Othello to his class. And the students rioted, much like the scene at the beginning of “American Fiction.”

DD: That really hits on so much of the complexity that I'm dealing with in terms of hip hop beginning as a transgressive genre and later being co-opted to be marketable to a much wider audience.

JW: Frankly, hip hop’s become far less subversive, far less political, and it’s become a type of neo-minstrelsy. Not all of it, but there's a huge portion of it that is neo-minstrel. You can’t tell me otherwise.

DD: People like simplicity. If you’re able to define your identity through genre tropes, people are ready to jump onto that.

Alright, one last question. You’re an actor who’s worked on a lot of big productions. But you’ve also stayed out of the limelight, at least in my opinion. A lot of times, when I mention you to people, they won’t recognize you by name but they do recognize your face. Did you intend this? And what advice do you have for people who are interested in entering into the movie business without getting caught up in the craziness of LA?

JW: My primary interest was not in making it in the industry, it was in being a good actor, and being good at what I did. I was never really interested in the celebrity side of things. Attention, good or bad, comes with the territory. I like that I have characters that are better known than I am. I also think that it’s more interesting when someone in the audience watches a film or a play and is moved by the character more than by the actor. I think that’s an indication that the actor has done their job.

I do think that people now go to theaters and concert spaces for the celebrity experience and I’m not really interested in that. I think it’s overrated. At the end of the day, there’s emptiness at the center of it. But the work — a good story, a great song, a great piece of art — is real and necessary. It’s almost elemental to the human experience. Imagine a world without stories. Imagine life without music. That’s what we do. And that’s more interesting to me than the trappings that come with it. I don’t know, I went to Amherst. I think it’s smarter that way.