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Film Review

‘American Fiction’ explores racism, identity and the commodification of Black narratives

1/31/2024

“American Fiction”
R | 117 minutes
Director/Writer: Cord Jefferson
Stars: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz

Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut, “American Fiction,” is a delightful movie that transcends conventional storytelling. It’s fueled by an exceptional cast and enriched by its exploration of identity, family dynamics and the challenges faced by Black creators in the creative industry.

Adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” the screenplay intelligently explores racism, identity and the commodification of Black narratives. Harvard-educated professor and published author, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), is a bitter, prickly man. He can’t find an audience (other than adoring academic critics) for his most recent book, he’s grown tired of the stupidity of the students in his class, and, on top of all of that, he is forced to take a sabbatical after a classroom kerfuffle caused by his students brings him back home to visit his family — a task he dreads more than being forced to spend time with his students and colleagues.

During an already less than desired visit home, Monk is met with a tragedy that forces him to care for his mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), who is struggling with Alzheimer’s. That task is made exponentially more difficult with the little support he receives from his recently divorced and out brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), who, when given the choice, prefers to play with his boy-toys than assist Monk in their mother’s caregiving.

More than anything, Monk wishes to write books that change people’s lives; instead, he’s met with rejection after rejection, sitting on the sidelines while America opts for titles like Sinatra Golden’s (Issa Rae) debut novel “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto,” a book written in Ebonics that he views as perpetuating stereotypes of African Americans.

Monk being Monk, he can’t get over the fact that people would prefer a trashy novel to his passed over book. In response to the reception that Golden’s novel has received, Monk writes a parody of black culture titled “My Pafology” under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh and forces his agent to submit it with the expectation that the book will never see the light of day. 

The opposite occurs, and Monk’s joke novel is feted by salivating white gatekeepers of the publishing industry, optioned to be adapted into a movie, and all of America wants to meet the man behind the pages. “The dumber I behave, the richer I get,” he complains to his agent. He reluctantly pulls a “Bamboozled” (Spike Lee, 2000), and what follows are laughs, tears and everything in between as Monk attempts to balance his family dynamics, relationships and being a celebrity that no one can know about.

The story is as much a comedy as it is a thorny existential character drama about a writer who feels unseen yet never makes himself vulnerable enough for people to truly see him. Wright is note-perfect as Monk, alongside stellar contributions from Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K Brown, Issa Rae and Leslie Uggams. Each actor brings a unique energy to the respective roles, contributing to the authenticity of the characters. The chemistry among the cast members is palpable, creating a cohesive ensemble that elevates the storytelling.

Despite addressing serious topics including issues of racism and identity within the media, the film’s tone is comedic, and the film is often genuinely funny in a laugh-out-loud way. The laughs are genuine and create conversation about the film’s message, particularly using satirical and ironic humor throughout.

Cristina Dunlap’s cinematography captures the organic spaces and emotional intricacies of the characters. The film’s visual richness, complemented by a carefully chosen soundtrack, elevates “American Fiction” to becoming a vessel not only for fostering empathy but bridging the culture gaps in understanding.

Earning its audacious title, the plot of “American Fiction” is as well-crafted as its metaphors. Before it is finished, Black stereotypes and the tone-deaf white efforts to embrace them have fallen under its satirical scalpel. So have the worlds of academia, publishing and Hollywood moviemaking. Its humor is smart and sly while exposing the absurdity of a society struggling with communication and authenticity. It’s no coincidence that Monk shares his last name with author Ralph Ellison, whose “Invisible Man” helped usher in the Black American literary renaissance of the 1950s and 1960s. 

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