American Fiction is a clever, thoughtful, funny, satirical comedy about a black writer disgusted with the types of novels white publishers and readers seem willing to accept from black writers. What he ends up doing could have been the subject of an over-the-top farce (and is kind of reminiscent of Spike Lee’s much darker Bamboozled).
Writer/director Cord Jefferson toes that line at points, but keeps things grounded by balancing it with the family life of his protagonist.
That’s where the heart of this story lays. His difficulties connecting with his siblings and caring for his ailing mother are intentionally put side-by-side with the constant anger/frustration that comes from his professional life. The result is sort of an oddball crowd pleaser; it is consistently enjoyable to watch without ever actually trying to make viewers happy.
This is Jefferson’s debut and he is obviously dealing with a concept he is passionate toward. So many stories by/about black people are centered on suffering. The jumping off point of American Fiction (based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett) is that white people are only attracted to these types of stories because they find them to be more “authentic.” Never mind if the stories have any relation whatsoever to the author’s experience. Stories featuring slaves, poverty, drug dealers, deadbeat dads, young men being shot by police, etc., are seen as true depictions of the black experience. Jefferson pokes at this even more by showing us an educated, cultured, black man whose life is a mess, but in a way that is totally unrelated to the books he is expected to write.
As a rebuke to this, prideful novelist/teacher Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, who can’t get anything published, crafts what he believes is a giant “screw you.” A pandering, cliched, mockery of everything he hates, very thinly disguised as what publishers are asking for. Of course, they miss his point entirely and offer him a large sum of money for the rights. This results in him posing as a murderer turned fugitive, so the executives he meets with will see him as the real deal. This material is dripping with sharp satire, showing these “culturally-sensitive progressives” to be oblivious and ignorant, while Monk moves through this world in disbelief at how nobody sees what he’s doing.
On the other side of American Fiction (111 minutes, without the end credits) is Monk’s family. His proud mother is fading from Alzheimer’s, his brother is dealing with drug addiction and his sister is reeling after her divorce. Monk himself is alone, disliked at his school and hasn’t had anything published in years. He doesn’t feel connected to his family, or really anyone at all. Then, when he is placed on a forced sabbatical from work, he heads back home.
Monk is fully aware that he is a disaster. It is just that he is a disaster in a normal way, as opposed to the stereotypically exploitative way the media he despises portrays the struggles of African-Americans. Here he is, an intelligent man who had a complicated, yet not abnormal, upbringing, being told that his experience isn’t authentic enough to sell books. You can understand why he’d be pissed off. Jefferson uses these two sides of Monk’s world which, tonally, are quite different from each other, to say some interesting things about representation when it comes to issues of identity.
The screenplay is really good and it is helped incredibly by the casting of Jeffrey Wright in the lead. His character is a grumpy loner. A snob who can’t stop himself from insulting those he considers morally or intellectually inferior. He keeps himself at arm’s length from everyone. Still, Wright is able to make him likable, relatable. As he rails against the limitations put on black creatives, he shows a cleverness that sometimes crosses over into arrogance. Though as he deals with his family and a surprising new romance, we see his charm, vulnerability and even kindness. Wright makes every decision feel like we’re seeing him come up with it on the spot. He is excellent here.
Jefferson has made a movie that manages to be funny and entertaining, while never losing focus of his message. He assembled a great cast (Wright, Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross, et al.) and gives them something real and substantial to play. His control of tone in his first directorial effort is extremely impressive. This isn’t just a strong debut; it is a really good movie.
4¼ out of 5
Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison
Sterling K. Brown as Clifford Ellison
Leslie Uggams as Agnes Ellison
Erika Alexander as Coraline
Tracee Ellis Ross as Lisa Ellison
John Ortiz as Arthur
Issa Rae as Sintara Golden
Myra Lucretia Taylor as Lorraine
Written/Directed by Cord Jefferson