(Check out Chris Reed’s movie review of American Fiction. The film is in theaters now. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
The good intentions of misguided people can just as easily as pure malevolence lead the world astray. With an eye to diversifying representation among published authors, does the white-dominated establishment sometimes prioritize those voices deemed authentically Black over others? And who gets to decide what is authentic from among myriad hopefuls? These questions and issues animate writer/director Cord Jefferson’s feature debut, American Fiction, an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure.
Combining satire and heartfelt drama, the movie follows the often-comic misadventures of lead character Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright, The Batman), a novelist and professor whose newest work doesn’t seem to interest anyone. His long-suffering agent, Arthur (John Ortiz, The Fallout), explains that publishers just don’t think his book is “Black enough,” to which Monk responds, logically, “I’m Black, and it’s my book.” Nice try. The problem is that, like any self-respecting intellectual, Monk wants to write about that which interests him, which is…not what is expected of a Black author.
After a magnificent opening scene, in which a young white female student is offended by Monk’s use of the n-word (to which he replies, “If I got over it, you can, too.”), Monk is encouraged to take some time off. And so he heads back to his hometown of Boston, where his medical-doctor sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross, Cold Copy), and mother (Leslie Uggams, Nanny) live. It’s a bittersweet return for the prodigal son, families being what they are.
But what really sets Monk off is when he heads to a nearby book festival, witnessing a young Black woman author, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae, The Lovebirds), read from her latest—and quite celebrated—novel, entitled “We Lives in Da Ghetto.” Filled with the kinds of stereotypes of Black culture and slang that Monk detests, the book and its success depress him even further. So he takes action.
Writing quickly, throwing in everything he thinks is wrong with how mainstream white culture sees African Americans, Monk completes a new book, with the title “My Pathology.” Excuse me, that would be “My Pafology,” with an F, thank you very much. Believing that this exercise will serve as a wakeup call to the nation, he is more than a little surprised when the book, submitted under a pseudonym by his agent, is not only picked up, but for a big price.
And so the comedy rises, coupled with increasing domestic tension on the home front, courtesy of sibling strife—newly out and proud brother, Clifford (Sterling K. Brown, Biosphere), joining the fun—and mom’s developing dementia. There’s also Monk’s attempts at dating, doomed to failure because he always has to be the smartest guy in the room. Plus, he can’t hide from the publishers forever, which raises the stakes of his little experiment. Not even a title change to something obscene diminishes the growing excitement around his novel.
The movie is very much a tour de force, showcasing the many ways in which ostensibly progressive values can be warped towards actual harm (then again, malignant racism is much worse). Wright is, as always, brilliant, his onscreen charisma and sharp intelligence perfect for the part. Jefferson’s script is nimble in all the right places, only occasionally slowing down for certain scenes that depart from the parodic landscape of its construction. As delightful as American Fiction may be, however, it’s also rather frightening. Should we laugh or cry at the almost documentary truth within? That, indeed, is the question.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
MGM; Cord Jefferson; American Fiction movie review