THE STORY – Monk is a frustrated novelist who’s fed up with the establishment that profits from Black entertainment that relies on tired and offensive tropes. To prove his point, he uses a pen name to write an outlandish Black book of his own, a book that propels him to the heart of hypocrisy and the madness he claims to disdain.
THE CAST – Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Keith David, Issa Rae & Sterling K. Brown
THE TEAM – Cord Jefferson (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 117 Minutes
Toward the end of “American Fiction,” a familiar rousing ending begins to brew. You know the main character is going to deliver a roof-burning monologue, tearing our culture to shreds and saying every wise word the audience needs to hear. The moment’s building, the music’s swelling – and then the monologue never comes. Instead, writer-director Cord Jefferson pulls back, knowing he can’t give us all the answers to what he has proposed in his brilliantly conceived tightrope of a movie “American Fiction.” It’s a hilarious send-up up the commodification of Black voices while also expertly airing the frustration of expectations on marginalized voices. The result is a sharp, incisive, and genuinely funny crowdpleaser that presents itself as the kind of middle-brow, pleasant movie featuring a middle-class, middle-aged protagonist going through life’s familiar troubles (mostly familial and professional) that white audiences have been devouring for years. But due to the ingenious writing and the casting of Black actors in the roles we’ve typically seen depicted by white actors (think of a Nancy Meyers or Alexander Payne film), the film confronts hard-hitting questions about the portrayal of Black characters in media and how Black stories are told with wit and cutting examination.
This excellent debut from Jefferson announces a brilliant, new comedic voice in the world of film. He’s already received writing credits on many of the most acclaimed shows of the last decade, including “Succession,” “Master of None,” “The Good Place,” and “Watchmen,” but “American Fiction” is his first time in the director’s chair. In many ways, it’s easy to imagine Jefferson pouring much of himself into his protagonist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffery Wright). The frustrated college professor is asked (or forced) to take a leave of absence after upsetting a white girl by displaying the n-word on the board of his classroom for a lecture he’s conducting. Although she’s upset by its prominent display in the room, Monk feels it should be understood within the context of his lecture, and the students should not be so easily offended. Is he right, or are his views outdated in a society that has come to reckon more deeply than ever before about racial inequality and systemic racism? He’s a published author who can’t sell his latest novel, stuck under the weight of expectations for a Black author to produce something less refined and sophisticated than what his high intellect is capable of producing. The publishers seem only to want “Black” stories, which means they want something full of Black stereotypes and cliches that make white audiences feel good about themselves.
Forced to take this break, Monk’s frustrations with the world around him begin to build. While his books are rejected for not being Black enough, he sees the wild success of “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” by author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae). It features every pandering cliche Monk fears, but audiences are eating it up. Monk rolls his eyes and secretly despises Golden for sinking to this level. While attending a literary festival in Boston, he spends time with his family, whom he’s more or less estranged from. His mother (Leslie Uggams) is showing signs of dementia, his brother Cliff’s (Sterling K. Brown) life is in shambles after coming out as gay and getting involved in drugs, and his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) takes on a lot of the burden of their struggles. Before long, his time with his family takes a darker turn, adding to his woes and forcing him to confront his view of the world around him.
All of this tension within Monk builds, and he directs that anger toward his work. If all publishers want are stereotypical Black stories, he will give them the most stereotypical Black story of them all. Monk uses a pseudonym to throw together a trashy novel full of drug dealers, absent dads, and murder. He hates it but writes the novel despising the audience who might devour it and believing that it will never be sold, and he’ll be able to make a point to his publisher that no one actually wants this supposed trash.
Directly in the crosshairs of “American Fiction” are the only Black stories that seem to get critical attention. Are “12 Years A Slave” and “Boyz N The Hood” the only types of stories that Black filmmakers can make? While Monk is judgemental of the Black authors behind those sorts of stories, Jefferson is much more fair in how he presents them. In a confrontation between Monk and Golden, she stands her ground well, challenging the idea that these stories are invalid just because they’re full of “stereotypical” trauma. Ultimately, “American Fiction” wants to have its cake and eat it too. Yes, stories about the horrors of slavery are essential. Also, Black creatives are capable of telling stories of ordinary life that have nothing to do with perceived cliches of Blackness. The film calls for Black creatives not to be pigeonholed on the stories they must tell. It’s a fine line, but Jefferson’s script is razor-sharp in its commentary. It’s pointed but avoids pandering and condescending to its audience.
Few films are as truly insightful as “American Fiction” while still being a genuinely entertaining film. This may be Jeffrey Wright’s best feature film performance to date, primarily because it lets him loose to play a fully dimensional character who goes through quite an internal struggle only an actor of his caliber could successfully pull off. He’s hysterical, loving, angry, and mentally stuck. Wright hasn’t had many opportunities in his career to have this large canvas to play with and simply be funny on screen. It’s a shame because he’s effortlessly entertaining to watch, making every brutal observation feel effortless with the slightest gesture. The rest of the cast shines strongly, too, including Erika Alexander, who plays a new love interest for Monk, even if their relationship is a bit undercooked.
Essentially, two stories play out within “American Fiction.” We see the fallout from Monk writing his supposedly trashy novel rooted in Black trauma, titled “Fuck” (he truly goes out of his way to ensure no one will ever read this). Then there’s the story of Monk rekindling with his family back home in Boston, away from the Los Angeles life he’s conveniently built for himself. The blend between the two can feel clunky, and the story doesn’t naturally weave them together. Nevertheless, “American Fiction,” an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” showcases the poor job our culture has done at properly listening to Black voices. To truly listen, we must hear the totality of Black stories, not simply the ones that validate prejudices or speak to white guilt. Thanks to Jefferson’s impressive script, “American Fiction” makes these well-earned observations while still managing to be a laugh-out-loud funny satire in itself.
Monk himself wrestles with how to end his story, which serves as the film’s ending. Is the fiery monologue one would expect the protagonist to rabble off in an Oscar-winning clip what the audience needs to hear? Maybe. But will the audience accept that for a story such as this? We may need to see the author get his comeuppance. Or maybe he just needs to get the girl and live happily ever after. Or perhaps life is a bit more complicated than that, whether you’re Black or white. Even until the credits roll, Monk still grapples with how audiences will receive him and his work. Hopefully, Cord Jefferson isn’t wrestling with that question for “American Fiction” sticks the landing and establishes a solid framework for thorough debate about its ideas to take place in the future.