AMERICAN FICTION Review: Jeffrey Wright Elevates Publishing Satire Into Must-See Filmmaking

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
AMERICAN FICTION Review: Jeffrey Wright Elevates Publishing Satire Into Must-See Filmmaking

In American Fiction, writer-director Cord Jefferson’s (Station ElevenSuccession, Watchmen) adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, Erasure, a brilliant, blistering satire of commercial publishing, mainstream media, and Hollywood studio system, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a literature professor and under-read novelist, finds himself face-to-face with a seemingly intractable personal and professional dilemma.

Out of frustration, anger, and contempt, Monk writes a parodic novel, My Pafology, under a pseudonym, Stagger E. Leigh (a variation on the popular early 20th-century folk song). Monk centers his new novel on a regressive, stereotypical version of the “Black experience” (e.g., urban crime, gang-bangers, and uncontrollable community violence). Ultimately, circumstances dictate a binary choice between financial necessity and artistic integrity.

A seismic change family-wise, however, compels Monk into a stark, unavoidable choice between the two singularly opposed alternatives. For Monk, the price involves the loss of an evolved self carefully cultivated over several decades.

Monk’s outwardly critical, erudite personality reflects a culturally, socially, and economically diverse set of experiences, not the sensationalistic, monolithic one typically presented in mainstream media. (Therein lies a significant portion of Jefferson’s still relevant critique.) Not surprisingly, Monk’s literary output reflects his personal experiences, background, and interests. Unfortunately for Monk, his novels don’t sell well at all.

When we first meet Monk, he’s confined to an anonymous classroom somewhere in the wilds of Southern California, teaching the difficult, layered work of Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor as part of an American Literature course. One particularly insistent student objects to Monk’s refusal in class to sidestep using the actual title of one of O’Conner’s short stories, “The Artificial N——.”

Partly functioning as a critique of over-sensitive Gen Z attitudes, Monk’s refusal to cater to the student’s vocal concerns results in involuntary administrative leave and a moment of sheer terror for Monk: Seeing and spending time with his estranged biological family in Boston. Not coincidentally, Boston will be hosting a key book festival at the same time.

At the Boston book festival, Monk almost immediately encounters the bane of his literary existence, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), a novice writer with a bestselling novel, We's Lives In Da Ghetto, to her name, that encapsulates everything Monk detests about the publishing world. Frustrated and angry, Monk authors a satirical novel of his own in response.

The rest, at least in the slightly exaggerated world of American Fiction, becomes meta-publishing history. For Monk, the new book has the potential to transform his personal and professional life in both expected and unexpected ways.

While satire gives American Fiction its narrative momentum, ultimately it serves as a backdrop to Monk’s equally knotty family life. Born and raised into a family of doctors of the medical kind, Monk is something of a disappointment to his aging mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), and the long-dead father who took his own life.

Monk’s sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), doubles as a family doctor at a local medical clinic and just as importantly, the family’s emotional center. The youngest Ellison, Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), a newly divorced, Tucson, Arizona-based plastic surgeon, has only recently come out as gay to himself and his family.

After the aforementioned family tragedy, Monk finds himself in the unwelcome (to him), novel role as family caretaker, specifically handling the figurative minefield surrounding Agnes’s ongoing mental deterioration (dementia) and making the hard choices, including long-term care, that only he can make by default. It’s a role Monk tries to reject initially, but grudgingly accepts.

That, in turn, impacts Monk’s decision on whether or not he publishes his parodic novel — later retitled F*ck to reflect Monk’s derisive, mocking attitude toward the industry — and reap the financial rewards, even as he detests himself for even considering the decision in the first place.

Elevated by a superlative, never-better performance by the underappreciated, underused Wright, American Fiction deftly interweaves an insightful, sometimes even profound family drama along with its spot-on cultural critique. As the self-centered, privileged Monk, Wright not only excels in convincingly expressing Monk’s complex, contradictory inner life but also conveying the emotionally wrought moments when Monk, faced with unresolved, irreconcilable feelings toward a parent in terminal decline, stumbles clumsily into a form of acceptance if not outright enlightenment.

The notable performances extend to a shockingly deep cast, but it’s Sterling K. Brown who emerges as second only to Wright impact-wise. In just a handful of scenes, Brown turns Clifford into a fully rendered, not altogether unsympathetic character, stymied and stunted by the burdens of living by the near impossible standards demanded by “Black Excellence.”

As embodied by Brown, Clifford evolves from an overgrown adolescent parlaying his newfound freedom into a lifestyle defined by excess and self-indulgence to a searing self-awareness of his flaws, foibles, and life choices determined by his late father’s expectations and not his own.

American Fiction premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2023, where it won the People's Choice Award. It's scheduled to receive a limited theatrical release on December 15, 2023, with an expanded rollout to follow on December 22, 2023.

American Fiction

  • Cord Jefferson
  • Cord Jefferson
  • Percival Everett
  • Jeffrey Wright
  • Tracee Ellis Ross
  • John Ortiz
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Adam BrodyAmerican FictionCord JeffersonErika AlexanderJeffrey WrightLeslie UggamsLuis OrtizPercival EverettSterling K. BrownTracee Ellis RossJohn OrtizComedyDrama

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