When his publisher, Arthur (John Ortiz), encourages him to attend a book festival in Boston, Thelonious 'Monk' Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) tells him he really doesn’t want to engage with his family there. But Monk has deeper reasons, like the fact that his reworking of Aeschylus’s ‘The Persians’ has flopped while Sintara Golden’s (Issa Rae) 'We’s Lives in Da Ghetto' is a chart topping best seller. Monk is disgusted that black writers are only successful when they write about stereotypical themes involving guns, drugs, slavery and poverty and comes up with a plan to upend “American Fiction.”
Laura's Review: B+
Writer/director Cord Jefferson makes an impressively sure-footed feature debut adapting Percival Everett's 'Erasure,' his satire perhaps a bit less cutting but thematically on target while boasting a phenomenal ensemble. The film, a comedy, is both a searing probe into what America expects from black writers and entertainers and a character study of a man who has erected many of the same walls that distanced him from his own father.
The film opens with a moment ripped right out of recent headlines, a white female student running out of Monk’s literature class claiming she was triggered by his having written ‘The Artificial N*****’ by Flannery O’Connor on the chalkboard. Monk is astonished (‘If I got over it…’), but this is just the beginning of his journey.
We are quite surprised to meet Monk’s sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) when she picks him up at the airport, the female reproductive clinic nurse funny, warm and affectionate toward her older brother, but his experience at the book festival is as dismal as he’d predicted, a panel of four addressing an audience not much larger while Golden fills an auditorium. Gallows humor ensues, one’s book declared ‘life changing’ because it fixed the wobble on a dining room table.
With Ellison matriarch Agnes (Leslie Uggams) clearly in mental decline, an unexpected tragedy brings black sheep younger brother Clifford (Sterling K. Brown) out of the woodwork. A plastic surgeon, Cliff has been battling drug addiction ever since his ex-wife discovered he was gay and declares he cannot help with mom’s expenses. A light appears in Monk’s life in the form of Coraline (Erika Alexander), a public defender who lives across the street from the family beach house, but budding romance is not enough to solve Monk’s predicament and so, with the aid of a bottle of whisky, he decides to write a black parody novel under a pseudonym, ‘My Pafology’ by Stagg R. Leigh. Of course the book becomes the hottest thing in publishing, distressing Monk but thrilling Arthur (‘White people think they want the truth but they don’t. They want to be absolved.’), but the money enables Monk to take care of his mother and so he devises Stagg R’s public profile as a wanted criminal in order to keep his identity hidden. Even his eventual attempt to kill his creation by demanding it be retitled ‘F&(%’ is embraced by publisher Paula (Miriam Shor) and a Hollywood producer, Wiley (Adam Brody), is determined to get rights.
The film boasts a fabulous cast, from Wright having both his ideology and family perspective turned inside out and upside down, to all the supporting players. Sterling K. Brown hasn’t had a role this outside his ‘usual usual’ and it gives him a chance to exhibit range, the most interesting work he’s done in some time. Ellis Ross, too, is exceptional, a caustic wit cloaked in warmth. Uggams pulls at the heartstrings while Myra Lucretia Taylor as caretaker/housekeeper Lorraine provides staunch family stability. She, too, finds touching romance at the beachside house, local cop Maynard (Raymond Anthony Thomas) charming with courtly woo. Issa Rae makes Sintara a formidable rationalizer, one who becomes Monk’s unlikely ally when they are both judges for a national book award.
The film was shot in Boston and Scituate for real local flavor, enhanced by Laura Karpman’s lively jazz and moody piano score. The screenplay is sharp, some of its best writing found in a eulogy, and ironic, Monk, like Peter Dinklage’s opera composer in “She Came to Me,” ignoring the black subject right under his nose, his own family. Jefferson ends his film with some sleight of hand, concocting three different scenarios, the first what we expect, the last bringing us full circle. Keep your eyes peeled for Jefferson’s final ‘gotcha,’ a brief nod of recognition on a Hollywood backlot.
Robin's Review: B+
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a published black scholar whose serious novels have fallen out of favor to more “street-wise” authors. Pushed to put out the same kind of “hip” work, he decides to prove a point and create his own. Unfortunately, what he writes is far more popular than anything else he put to paper before in “American Fiction.”
Writer and first time feature-film director Cord Jefferson gives us a wholly formed work and first-rate performance by its star, Jeffery Wright. A respected academic and author in his own right, Monk Ellison is a part of a panel making literary judgment on their colleagues’ works. In the next room, a young black author, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), is giving a reading from her current, culturally hip look into the black experience. Her audience is far more enthusiastic than his.
When he goes to a book store looking for his published works, he finds them in the Black Studies section, not with the rest of the popular novels, like Sintara’s. He has been pressured by his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), to be more relevant and write something the people want to read. This plants the seed of a plan.
He decides to write a “black” novel and use every stereotype of black culture in his story. What begins as a protest and a joke suddenly takes off. Publication is sure and the potential for fast money rears its head.
Monk, though, is dealing with family issues, His mom (Leslie Uggams) is suffering from dementia and this presents steep medical and care bills. His sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Moss), is a physician but has her own daunting responsibilities and cannot help out. His gay brother, Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), simply claims he cannot and will not help with the expensive. It all falls on Monk to resolve.
Then, the new book takes off, sells like hotcakes and there is a potential movie deal. The absurdity of the situation – Monk must sacrifice his literary integrity for the mighty dollar to ensure his mom’s health and safety – is well played as the story gives equal shrift to Monk’s career and his family. It is an interesting dilemma to watch the writer as he copes with his angels and demons.
While Thelonious is the front and center character here, his supporting cast, though not given much screen time, are fine actors and flesh out their characters into becoming human beings. It is also nice to see Jeffrey Wright in the lead role instead of as a significant supporting actor, making me think back to 1996 and his first starring role in “Basquiat.” I hope to see him do more lead roles.
Amazon/MGM releases "American Fiction" in select theaters on 12/15/23, opening wide on 12/22/23.