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'American Fiction' Speaks Truth

American Fiction is a genuinely entertaining film with a few lessons.

American Fiction

4.5 / 5
4.5 / 5

I’ve not seen The Producers, nor its remake and the hugely successful Broadway show.  But I know the premise.  It’s one of the classic premises in the history of comedy: two producers, aiming to collect profits, put on a show they believe destined to fail. They call it ‘Springtime for Hitler.’ But in a shocking turn of events, the musical ends up becoming a huge hit. Instead of offending audiences, it reels them in. It’s a great storyline because it basically seethes satire while depicting American hypocrisy at its finest.

It’s the closest thing I can think of to American Fiction, a new comedy-drama starring Jeffrey Wright, written and directed by Cord Jefferson. I was not aware of Jefferson before this feature film, but he has quite the resume with writer credits on projects such as Station Eleven and Watchmen to name a few. The latter of which he won a writing Emmy for back in 2020. 

Like The Producers, American Fiction is about someone who creates something he believes to be a poor and offensive product only to have it thrown back into his face when it’s well-received by the public. With this movie however, there is also commentary about pervasive African-American stereotypes that lack depth and complexity, but appeal to predominantly white audiences.  

Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright)

Based on a 2001 book titled Erasure by Percival Everett, American Fiction stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, a struggling writer who works in academia. Big success has eluded him. His most recent novel has been accused of not being ‘black enough.’ He has also been put on leave by fellow faculty due to a confrontation with a student regarding race. There is a funny scene early in the film at a bookstore where an irate Monk moves his books from the ‘African-American Studies’ section to the ‘Philosophy’ section despite protest from an employee.  

It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to reveal that roughly 20 minutes into the film Monk faces tragedy with the passing of his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross in a great small role). He finds some solace at his family’s beach house where he meets Coraline (Erika Alexander), a neighbor that he begins dating. Soon however, Monk’s world gets a little more complicated when his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) develops Alzheimer’s. Things only get more complicated from there.

Feeling frustrated that his scholarly work has not found an audience and harboring envy towards successful writer Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), who has achieved recognition by capitalizing on clichéd narratives about African-American history, Monk decides to take a humorous approach. In a jest, he pens a novel titled “My Pafology,” delving into the realms of gangsters, murder, and urban melodrama, and submits it to his publisher. Surprisingly, Monk gets a $750,000 offer for the book. Pressured by the huge cost of nursing care for his mother and his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), Monk accepts the offer. He takes on the pseudonym, Stagg R. Leigh, a reference to a famed murderer in an old American folk song.

Coraline (Erika Alexander) and Monk (Jeffrey Wright)

On calls with executives, Monk takes on the voice and mannerisms of a bad-to-the-bone prisoner wanted by police. His authenticity is never questioned. Despite trying to sabotage the deal by insisting on changing the book title to, I kid you not, Fuck, the publishers still want to release the book. Soon a movie executive, Wiley Valdespino (Adam Brody), wants to meet with Monk to discuss adapting his book into a feature film. Monk, as Stagg R. Leigh, continues to dig himself deeper and deeper into this hole of the deception and fraud. Chosen to be on a committee for a literary award, Monk’s book, Fuck, is chosen as one of the candidates for the top prize. Soon Coraline picks up the book and Monk finds himself attacking her taste while dismantling the credibility of a book that he in fact wrote.

American Fiction is a funny movie, with surprisingly intense dramatic turns at times.  The movie wants to show you the very real, relatable challenges of its protagonist.  Whether that’s dealing with familial loss, financial issues or taking care of one’s ailing mother.  

Wiley Valdespino (Adam Brody) and Monk (Jeffrey Wright)

The more romantic scenes between Monk and Coraline are intimate and enjoyable. It’s nice to see a black couple on screen going through the motions of a relationship. It’s not a common depiction in mainstream film. Sterling K. Brown plays Clifford, Monk’s brother who’s recently come out as gay, and not on the best terms with his mother. He provides much needed levity to the movie throughout.  

The dialogue is quick, funny and witty, with a few thought-provoking exchanges about the moral implications of ‘selling out.’  There is also a meta narrative that becomes clear at the end and it sends a strong message. Convenient resolutions are not what writer-director Cord Jefferson is after. Instead he draws attention to the way we portray African-Americans in our culture across different mediums.  And it ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s actually kind of bleak.

Monk (Jeffrey Wright) and Sintara Golden (Issa Rae)

Jeffrey Wright is great in this.  It’s no surprise he was nominated for a Golden Globe and will most likely get an Oscar nomination.  I highly recommend American Fiction. It’s a genuinely entertaining film with a few lessons.  It’s nice to laugh while also seeing the meaning underneath.