'American Fiction' — Cord Jefferson's performative racial hijinks

  • by Brian Brmberger
  • Tuesday January 9, 2024
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Jeffrey Wright in 'American Fiction'<br>(photo: Claire Folger/Orion Pictures)
Jeffrey Wright in 'American Fiction'
(photo: Claire Folger/Orion Pictures)

As every LGBTQ person realizes, how we see ourselves individually often differs from how the world views us. Our unique individuality stands in contrast to being marginalized or reduced to stereotypes by society. And who exactly gets to define, evaluate, and authenticate queerness?

These identity issues lie at the heart of the hilarious satire by writer/director Cord Jefferson in his debut film "American Fiction," (Amazon/MGM Studios/Orion) in which a Black professional is forced to reexamine his integrity as he concocts a fictional book about racial stereotypes. Is he a sellout or mocking the shibboleths that surround the politics and culture of race in the U.S.?

Not 'Black enough'
Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a Black writer and professor of English literature in Los Angeles who has published several novels (i.e. a reworking of Aeschylus' "The Persians") which have sold poorly, rejected by publishers because they aren't "Black enough." He resents his books being put in the African-American section in bookstores instead of Fiction, claiming the only thing "Black" about his books is the ink.

In class, while discussing one of Flannery O'Connor's short stories that uses the N-word, a young white woman is offended, to which he replies, "I got over it. I'm pretty sure you can too."

This brashness leads to a university disciplinary hearing that puts him on temporary leave, encouraging him to attend a literary conference in Boston, his hometown. At the seminar, he becomes cognizant of author Sintara Golden's (Issa Rae) best-selling novel, "We's Lives in Da Ghetto," in which she uses dated Black stereotypes of misery, slang, and tropes, which offend him.

Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Uggams in 'American Fiction' (photo: Claire Folger/Orion Pictures)  

He stays with his elderly mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) who's in the middle stages of Alzheimer's. He reunites with his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), an ob-gyn doctor who performs abortions. Recently divorced, she holds the family together and has a tart relationship with Monk. When he asks her whether something he's written has ever changed her life, she replies, "My dining room table was wobbly as hell until your last book came out."

His brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), a plastic surgeon, suffers a bank-breaking divorce after his wife found him in bed with another man. Making up for lost time, he has lots of casual sex and heavy drug use. Meanwhile, Monk connects with Coraline (Erika Alexander), a lawyer, who lives across the street. They will start a relationship, but she refuses to let him hide behind his intellect.

His mother needs to be put in an expensive nursing home. In a cathartic release of frustration, he impulsively writes a manuscript "My Pafology," a parody of what is expected of Black writers by white publishers. It features a ridiculous plot involving a deadbeat dad and his criminal son, using Black clichés with gang violence, drugs, rappers, and unwanted pregnancies. In a riotous scene, Monk's writing process is visualized with his characters coming to life in the room waiting for their next lines to be written, then questioning the dialogue.

Felonious Monk
Monk invents a pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, pretending he's a violent, convicted felon. He submits it to his agent Arthur (John Ortiz) who initially scorns it, but sends it to several publishers, one of whom offers $750,000 for the rights, praising the novel's rawness. The book is sold to a successful movie producer Wiley (Adam Brody) for $4 million, but he wants to meet Stagg in person, so Monk adopts the felon persona.

With Monk getting nervous about all the publicity, complaining, "The dumber I behave, the richer I get," he attempts to sabotage the book deal by demanding the title be changed to "Fuck." The publishers reluctantly agree, calling it "very brave."

Monk is invited to judge the New England Book Association's annual Literary Award, to promote more diversity. Meanwhile "Fuck" debuts as a #1 bestseller (rushed out in time for Juneteenth). Monk is upset when he finds Coraline read and liked the book, leading to their breakup. On the family front, Monk learns about his late father's infidelities and wonders if they contributed to his suicide.

Erika Alexander amd Jeffrey Wright in 'American Fiction'  

Monk's publishing company enters "Fuck" for the Literary Award, so he must judge his own novel. Sintara is also a judge and in a heated debate Monk calls her book 'trauma porn' and berates her for contradicting her authentic middle-class background and education. Monk argues, "I'm not saying these things aren't real, but we're more than this!" Will "Fuck" win the grand prize?

To its credit, the film doesn't take sides in whether these potboiler books promote and pander to straight, white America's preconceptions of race by appealing to the widest possible audience for profit trivializing the Black experience (though claiming they are the most "real"). Or are they upending stereotypes by mocking them?

Meta mode
Based on the 2001 novel "Erasure" by Percival Everett, the film in meta mode has Monk write three different possible endings for the movie so the audience can pick out which most appeals to them.

As well as giving the finger to the publishing industry, the film asks, in our culture, what should a Black writer be? Monk claims he doesn't believe in race, but his agent counters, "The problem is that everyone else does... White people think they want the truth, but they don't. They just want to feel absolved." Universally, the film highlights our inability or irrational fear of relating to people different from ourselves.

Sterling K. Brown in 'American Fiction'
(photo: Claire Folger/Orion Pictures)  

Jeffrey Wright gives a career peak performance that should surely merit a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Mostly given supporting roles ("Angels in America," "Westworld") throughout his career, with this lead as Monk, he reveals his extraordinary range, by taking an unlikable, judgmental, arrogant character and making viewers care about him, primarily through his skilled use of deadpan humor.

He shows us Monk's deep layers, especially the resentments, unresolved traumas, and rivalries poisoning his relationships with his siblings. Wright manages to project rage and betrayal (especially about his father), compassion, brilliance, cynicism, eroticism, and kindness. He creates a nuanced, full-bodied, multifaceted character, who is at a crossroads privately and careerwise.

All the supporting players are excellent and it's wonderful to see Leslie Uggams back onscreen projecting dignity, elegance, and sass as Monk's mother. Brown as the gay brother is fine, enjoying a tense but likable vibe with Wright, but this is the minor part that could've gone to an openly queer Black actor. Cliff is an understandable bitter mess/outcast, who feels liberated after keeping his identity hidden (his dance scene with Uggams is devastating). Perhaps a gay performer could have expanded what is a banal one-dimensional portrait.

"American Fiction" is never preachy, but it is biting in a breezy way. It would be fascinating for a queer filmmaker to parody heteronormative clichés about LGBTQ people (i.e. only interested in sex, every gay man talks only in witty one-liners; queer people have only gorgeous bodies and wear fabulous clothes).

This funny/sad film indicts those people who consider themselves allies but are actually the ones causing the most harm. "American Fiction" is a triumph and should be nominated for one of the ten Best Picture Oscar slots, exposing how Americans prefer to hear reductive fiction about POC rather than the unvarnished truth.


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