‘American Fiction’ Review: Rewriting the Narrative on Black Success

Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s AMERICAN FICTION | Image Credit: Orion Pictures Release / Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

In Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is tired. He’s a writer of dense books, intelligent and full of meaning and metaphor, but they don't fly off the shelf. His intrepid publisher, Arthur (John Ortiz) compares his book to a very expensive bottle of Johnny Walker Red: expensive, so fewer people imbibe, but undoubtedly better in quality. The observations offer only a brief condolence as financial obligations begin to rear their ugly heads into Monk’s life.

Monk stands at a crossroads where his books are widely ignored, but the work of fellow author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) that catalogs the “Black” experience in a way that Monk deems disingenuous and trite, becomes a sudden best seller. At first, Monk tries to rise above the sleight, but then he decides if he can’t get ahead, he’ll get even. An inebriated night turns into a writing session where he pens My Paffology by Stagg R. Leigh.

The book becomes an overnight sensation that solves his monetary issues but only stokes the flame of his moral fire. In the meantime, he deals with an aging mother, an estranged brother and suddenly becoming the head of a household he was happily far removed from. It’s important to note that Monk comes from an upper-middle-class family. He has no roots in the “hood” or the “ghetto” and yet the public constantly asks him to represent those themes in his work and sometimes even his professional life. As Monk evolves (or devolves) into Stagg R. Leigh, the discomfort becomes obvious and while it elevates the humor of the film, it also showcases a crossroads that many Black artists are forced to consider.

Satire Not Farce

Image Credit: Orion.

When I first saw the trailer for American Fiction, I was immediately reminded of two titles, one giving me hope and the other giving me pause. The hopeful title was Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. Written by Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans, Hollywood Shuffle offered an unadulterated look at the struggles of a Black actor trying to make it in Hollywood–the ways they have to compromise themselves and the L’s (aka losses) they sometimes have to take. The second title was Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.

Written and directed by Spike Lee, Bamboozled debuted in 2000 and starred Damon Wayans as a weary TV executive ready to surrender his career. He created a minstrel show that features Black artists in Blackface in order to get fired and escape his contract. Of course, Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show became a huge hit, and Wayans’ character spirals into madness. I adore Spike Lee as a filmmaker and I respect his vision, but for me, Bamboozled felt like it confidently answered a pressing question with “I don’t know.”

That film had a garish style, and that was the point, but the film felt unfinished– lacking cohesion and conclusion. While these initial worries brought doubt, American Fiction more than proved itself. The film moved at a great pace and the elements that dealt with the book and the “thug” persona were thoughtfully crafted and executed with unparalleled commitment. Adam Brody, as a slimy movie exec trying to option the rights for Monk’s book, plays so convincingly that there’s not a moment of distrust. Experiences in the film come from exactly that: experience.

American Fiction marks Jefferson’s directorial debut, and while his filmography is short, it’s full of powerful hits. From Master of None to Station Eleven (one of my absolute faves from 2021), the writing rooms Jefferson inhabited seem a kind of masterclass to prepare him for such a strong debut. American Fiction employs satire to make pointed observations about the industry today, but it doesn’t venture into farce. It gives viewers a metaphorical Blackface without actually showing a character in Blackface. The story focuses more on the resulting emotions that something equal parts hurtful and historic can hold.

Throughout the film, Jefferson balances a satirical take on Blackness in Hollywood and a drama about interpersonal connections and the deals that we make with ourselves. He does this while maintaining the pace and creating characters that live within the audience immediately.

A Nesting Doll or Maybe a Cabbage

American Fiction Director
Image Credit: Orion.

One of the most amazing things that American Fiction does is act as its own red herring. As Monk tries to make sense of the ouroboros he’s created, the satirical humor nestles so beautifully in a touching family drama. Monk goes home to visit his ailing mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggums), who stays with their longtime housekeeper and nanny Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor). Monk and his younger brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), have both moved, leaving care duties up to their sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross). All three of the siblings are different types of doctors, yet each has arrived at a point in life where the title does little to solve any of their actual problems.

They can’t help each other – they can barely help themselves – but the movie also explores the unbreakable bond that siblings have. To each, the other is equal parts unbearable and necessary. They find that one of the reasons they may or may not get along is because they can see each other better and more clearly than they can see themselves. We see Monk thrust into a narrative where suddenly he becomes the caretaker making decisions (and several mistakes) for his mother and ultimately the family legacy. He juggles this with the book shenanigans and trying to romance his neighbor Coraline (the incomparable Erika Alexander). Every bit goes about as expected until Monk unpacks what’s truly at the center of his unhappiness.

A Happy Ending?

American Fiction Family
Image Credit: Orion.

American Fiction is a beautifully told, gorgeously acted film. The music includes jazz notes that underscore each scene gently and with intention. The film exposes the roots, yet doesn’t condescend to its audience or punch down to Black artists trying to navigate such a volatile and unpredictable career landscape. Director Jefferson shot the film in a scenic Boston seaside cottage that boasts beautiful views among sometimes turbulent scenes.

The family dynamics here feel unique but also wholly relatable. It recalls the “we were all raised the same” memes where users bemoan reaching for a cookie from inside a blue tin and coming out with sewing needles and spools of thread or having a plastic bag under a sink full of other plastic bags. There’s a universality to certain connections, and it creates a familiarity so the differences can be explored. Jefferson showcases this in a film accessible to all viewers despite the unique experiences of the characters.

Ultimately, films like this aim to persuade the industry gatekeepers to pry the admission doors open just a little bit more, and to start conversations. Why are there only three types of acceptable Black movies, and why do all three typically end with someone dying? American Fiction has the potential to inspire new ways to demonstrate diversity in action. That alone makes it well worth the watch.

American Fiction premiered at TIFF 2023 and will release in theaters December 15th.

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Score: 10/10 SPECS