Former journalist and Emmy-winning TV writer Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut “American Fiction” is a social satire that wields a deceptively sharp shiv, not a cleaving broadsword, as it surgically slices through the many hypocrisies of the culture industry at large.
In adapting Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” Jefferson assigns himself and his film the double-edged task of both critiquing popular representations of African American life, while simultaneously serving a representation that is otherwise lacking. It’s a lot to juggle, but he pulls it off, thanks to a wildly talented cast, and plenty of good humor that still allows for well-placed jabs to the gut of Hollywood, and the publishing industry, from tip to tail.
Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an academic and novelist who has grown weary of campus politics, but hasn’t managed to find stardom in publishing. After an incident with a student, he’s asked to take a leave of absence, and he heads to a book festival in his hometown of Boston, with an extended stay tacked on.
A few things crystallize for Monk in Boston. Firstly, his work is out of step with what the book market craves from Black writers, which is pandering depictions of Black life in the ghetto, rendered in a richly colorful African American vernacular. This is evidenced by the rapturous adoration of “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” a novel by superstar writer Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), received with knowing nods from middle-aged white women in the audience.
He also realizes that despite his reluctance to connect with his family, they are in crisis on several fronts, and his presence is needed, especially as his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) is declining from Alzheimer’s. These two realizations collide for Monk into one epiphany, and one night he sits down to write “My Pafology,” a tale of guns, gangs and the ghetto, under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh. It’s a joke, an exorcism even, but what he doesn’t expect is for everyone to take the joke so seriously.
The manuscript sells in a blockbuster sale almost immediately, the cloying white executives fawning over “Stagg” and his “raw, authentic” voice and fugitive status — a gambit dreamed up by Monk’s agent (John Ortiz) to keep his identity in the dark. Spurred by the need to pay for his mother’s care, Monk allows the ruse to keep tumbling forward, to a movie deal, TV appearances and a literary award.
Everett’s novel is a meta-narrative, and Jefferson nods to that, bringing to life “My Pafology” (later retitled to something that can’t be printed here) onscreen with actors who interact with him as he’s writing. The end also toys with reality, the climax being rewritten again and again until we wonder what has been real all along.
But the true climax of the film happens earlier, during a confrontation that’s been simmering for the entire film. Monk and Sintara, his unlikely nemesis, finally have a moment alone and he probes her about her book, accuses her of writing to the (white) market, and she sets him on his heels for not appreciating what’s in front of him, instead searching for some unattainable “potential.” It’s a momentary splash of cold water and an important call out of our protagonist — perhaps there is another side to this issue than just his anger at what kinds of narratives are made and celebrated?
Wright plays Monk as a grumpy and grumbling, growling and glowering, but the entire process of becoming Stagg, connecting with his family, and finding love with a neighbor, Coraline (Erika Alexander) forces him to open up, even if begrudgingly.
At times, “American Fiction” can feel torn between its two goals, one satirical, one emotional. The warmth of the family melodrama that powers the internal core of the narrative and provides the device to push Monk forward with the fake book tends to declaw the social commentary. It’s not that Jefferson pulls any punches, but he chooses them carefully, and allows our attention to rest in Monk’s personal life.
As a visual filmmaker, Jefferson is finding his feet, though there is a certain wit and arch irony in certain compositions, production design, and editing choices. The strength of this film lies in its script and performances, and it’s wonderful cast, from Wright to Uggams to Alexander, and Sterling K. Brown, in a chaotic comedic mode that offers a necessary brightness.
“American Fiction” is a lot like Monk’s drink of choice: Chenin blanc. Dry, bracing, elegant and a bit unexpected. It’s a thoughtful and complex film that unfolds under repeat viewings and signals the arrival of an exciting new filmmaker. Even writing this review feels like playing into the systems that Jefferson critiques, and therein lies the complexity of tangling with this “American Fiction.”
3 stars out of 4
MPA rating: R (for language throughout, some drug use, sexual references and brief violence)
Running time: 1:57
How to watch: In theaters Friday
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