For more on the rest of the Culture Shifters, including TV Director Jasmyn Lawson and Spiritual Advisor Emilia Ortiz, return to the full list here.
In the middle of a rise of “Ambient TVWhich doesn’t demand much from his viewers, including their undivided attention, Cord Jefferson’s writing is not only thought-provoking, but provocative. From the spiritually ambiguous quartet on “The Good Place” and the morally compromised heirs of “Succession”, to the socio-political torment of masked vigilantes on “Watchmen” and the dilemmas of an American Indian on “Master of None”, he challenges the public to think beyond the worlds they know.
For Jefferson, it’s intentional. “My goal is to try and do things that make it feel like it’s additive,” he said on a call from his home in Los Angeles. “I think if there is connective tissue between [my stories]is that they are trying to do something new, to help people think about their own lives or to take a deeper look at the world around them.
Jefferson felt this sense of obligation to contemplate our realities throughout his own life. Describing himself as “quite introverted,” he was raised by a white mother, who was an educator and politically liberal, and a black father, who was a defense lawyer and a Republican. Their home in Arizona was filled with, as he described it, “a lot of different opinions, debates, discussions and sane arguments.” He was encouraged to engage in the same way: asking questions rather than just accepting what someone says to him.
Jefferson recalled a specific time in his childhood when, while planning to go to a friend’s house for a swim, he caught a glimpse of a report his parents were watching. the 1991 Vanity Fair cover starring a pregnant and naked Demi Moore. Without missing a moment, he said, “Oh my God, this is so disgusting.”
“I remember my mom and dad questioning me and not letting me go until I explained to them why I thought it was gross,” Jefferson said. “And I couldn’t because it was just something I picked up on TV. I was part of it as my own idea, but I didn’t really understand why people thought it was disgusting.
It took, as Jefferson remembered, 45 minutes of his parents begging him to think independently to realize that this was an essential part of being a human being. “Things are complex,” he says. “Things are nuanced. The idea that you can look at the world as a binary thing of good and bad people and good and bad things is no way to approach life.
From that point on, this is how Jefferson navigated his journey – to the point that he became a “devil’s advocate” at William & Mary’s University in Virginia. “I guess Cord Jefferson, 23, was probably a nightmare, if I’m to be honest,” he laughs. “But as I get older I think [I’ve] been less devil’s advocate and more just a person who thinks perhaps too deeply about everything.
This is evident throughout our conversation, as Jefferson pauses to rethink something he said. Referring to a character from ‘The Good Place’ he said, “Chidi was very close and dear to my heart, because I often find myself snapping and hauling even the smallest decisions in my life, and moving on. days and days of internally debating the most minor details of my existence.
These include the effects of his parents’ divorce when he was 15, navigating white spaces as a biracial black man, and a lingering anger he said he feels for the world around him. He’s been able to tackle each of these things through “doing a ton of therapy” and in his diverse work, including the stupendous “Watchmen” episode “That Extraordinary Being,” which won him an Emmy. The hour-long storyline explored the suppressed trauma of racism and homophobia in a trippy, nostalgic episode with luscious black-and-white cinematography.
The screenplay, co-written by showrunner Damon Lindelof, was “cathartic” for Jefferson. “My childhood was spent in Tucson, which can be a pretty seamless place,” Jefferson said. “I was a black kid with a funny name in this town where no one else was like me or my family and I felt very lonely most of the time.”
This frustration has only grown over time, compounded by today’s grim political landscape. “I think it’s an emotion that a number of black people in this country can probably talk about,” Jefferson said. This is especially the case in a Hollywood which, even in the midst of current cultural changes, is still marked by white control.
“Years ago, a black friend told me that to be successful in this industry and in America, it was like being a sociopath,” he said. “Because he was constantly lying about who he was and the things he thought about everyone around him. I always think of telling her that, especially when it came to [‘This Extraordinary Being’]; how people, including me, hide their emotions to get by, because you don’t want to be seen as an angry black man or an angry black woman. ”
This is why Jefferson has strived to live without fear of judgment throughout his life and career, first as a journalist and now as a cinematic storyteller keen to create his own shows with a new global agreement with Warner Brothers. He also helps others to do the same with the launch of the Susan M. Haas scholarship for journalists interested in television writing. Named after her mother, who died of breast cancer in 2016, the initiative will provide two people with the financial and creative support needed to develop original pilots.
It’s just another way Jefferson seeks to inspire others to think – and, in the brotherhood’s case, create – outside of their own boxes.
“I think a lot of people have learned to live their lives in a way that will constantly allow them to avoid fear,” he said. “We should actually be looking for things that scare us all the time, because for me, those are the things that make life worth living.