Though it's the first time Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, Erika Alexander and Leslie Uggams have acted together in a film, they said making "American Fiction" felt like a homecoming.
"It's a special film," said Ross. "Feel very proud to be in it."
"I walked on the set and I just felt that we all belonged," Uggams said.
Based on the 2001 novel "Erasure," "American Fiction" stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison — a professor and frustrated author struggling to find his place in a literary world circumscribed by White perceptions of Black life. Monk's frustration grows when he hears Rae's character, Sinatra Golden, read a passage from her wildly successful book, which is riddled with every racial cliche imaginable.
As a joke, Monk assumes a pen name and writes a book awash in Black stereotypes. But the joke's on him when it becomes a roaring success.
At its heart, "American Fiction" is about relationships. Alexander plays the divorcee who lives across the street.
"If Sintara [Issa Rae's character] is the object of his obsession, then I'm glad that I'm playing Coraline, the object of his desire," said Alexander. "It's a beautiful, mature relationship and love story blooming."
It's a family love story too, and, like in many families, love doesn't come easy. Ross plays Monk's sister, Lisa — the glue binding the family. Uggams is Agnes, their mother struggling with early-stage Alzheimer's.
Off screen, there was a lot of love for their co-star. Rae mentioned "out-of-body moments" watching Wright work, while Alexander joked that she thought about kissing him "every day.
"He would be near the craft service table, and I'd mosey up and say, 'Our scene is coming up.' And he'd go, 'Oh boy!'" she laughed.
Wright's Monk is the central character, but he's defined by the women around him. Ross, Rae, Alexander and Uggams said they saw that Black girl magic in the script by writer-director Cord Jefferson.
"It was on the page," said Ross. "He allowed these women to be full people."
"The brilliance of this film is that you have such a complete family story, one that isn't seen and one that would be candidly hard to sell on its own," Rae added.
Rae, Ross, Alexander and Uggams all had success playing accomplished women on television — roles they call the exception, not the rule.
"Sometimes, we're reduced to plot devices," said Rae. "And I think that what it is, is like, a lack of seeing us as human."
"I'm not saying they're doing it on purpose," said Alexander. "But I do think that there's something in it psychological … that wants to bring it back down to, you know, something that they can say is, 'Oh, that's more accessible."
Uggams told us a movie like "American Fiction" would have been unthinkable when she started in show business seven decades ago. As a teenager, she became the first African American woman to appear as a regular on a TV variety show: "Sing Along with Mitch."
"Oh my god, it was an event," Uggams said of fanfare surrounding the series. "And the interesting thing about that is that the South had blacked us out. They wouldn't take the show because of me being on the show."
Uggams said she's seen a lot of change since then.
"There's more of us on television," she said. "I mean, when I was starting it was, like, maybe one commercial, and that was usually, you know, Aunt Jemima on the pancake box kind of thing."
In the 1990s, Alexander was a breakout star of the TV show "Living Single." In 2016, Ross became the first Black woman in 30 years to get an Emmy nomination for best comedy actress for her role in "Black-ish." That same year, Rae's series "Insecure" debuted on HBO to much acclaim. They all give a nod to Uggams, who said having to break barriers has not felt a burden to carry.
"I've said, 'I'm gonna blast through the door.' And I've been doing that all my life. I don't take no for an answer," Uggams said, to a chorus of laughs from her co-stars. "So, it hasn't been a burden for me. It's been like, you know, marching up the steps. 'Come on. Let's go. Let's go."
"We want to showcase the best of us," said Rae. "And I think it's an insult, frankly, when we see what others thing of us. The burden is only in confronting that."
"And if you look at Louis Armstrong, and if you look at Jimi Hendrix, and the blues, and the great Diana Ross, all you see are people who have defied the odds," Alexander noted. "And so that's our birthright. That's our legacy. But I just feel that if we can do anything to lessen the burden so people can actually get on with their creativity, that's what I think our job is. To make it easier for them to be funded and found."
"I think that is happening," said Ross. "Wish it would happen faster."
"American Fiction" is on a fast track. It already had garnered several awards and nominations this season when it earned five nominations for the Academy Awards.
"Award shows are complicated things," said Ross. "The reality is they open doors in terms of the business. All of sit here. We're four women that have made our way through. But the amount of other women that have not been given accolades or even a seat with the work that they've done…so, yes. It is an honor. It's a treat. But it also does not validate who we are."
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