I thought I had American Fiction pegged, I really did. I entered the theater expecting to see a biting satire on the marketable portrayal of African-Americans in literature and media, one that has been accused of sidelining humanity in favor of the proliferation of stereotypes. That was the core of Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, on which the film is based. What I wasn’t expecting was a movie that didn’t forget to tell a compelling story; one that richly humanized its characters while carrying out dignified, and frequently funny, satire.
Cord Jefferson’s debut amalgamates the two to a divine degree, knowing that pulling double-duty strengthens both aspects of this richly detailed story. After working in television for most of the last decade, on everything from The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore to A Good Place, Jefferson probably knows what it’s like to sell cheapened stereotypes that downplay the inherent humanity of individuals. That’s not the case with American Fiction, which would make a delightful double feature alongside fellow Oscar nominee The Holdovers.
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is in an awful way as of late. He’s an author and college professor, but he has yet to publish a bestseller, and his latest work hasn’t gained any traction either. The unexpected motivation he needs comes after seeing the rise of Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), a Black author with an upper-middle class upbringing whose latest hit novel revolves around the tribulations of inner city Black women. This compels him to write a joke novel called “My Pafology” (later renamed to “Fuck”) under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, whom Monk plays up as a wanted fugitive in off-screen interviews. Monk initially envisioned the novel as a cathartic writing exercise, so he’s dumbfounded when his agent, Arthur (a witty John Ortiz), actually gets it sold — for $750,000 no less.
As Monk struggles with the acclaim his “Johnnie Walker Red novel” has garnered (a reference to a dime analogy from Ortiz early in the film), the drama swirling in his life is fit for its own book. A significant death early in the film comes at a time when his mother (Leslie Uggams) is exhibiting signs of dementia, and prompts the return of his estranged brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown). Brown gives a loose, spirited performance as Monk’s younger, debaucherous brother, whose narrative arch is developed despite his lengthy absences. Monk and Cliff serve as their own distinctively different representations of Black masculinity: Cliff is a gay man, Monk is an intellectual professor, and references to their late father suggest he a less-than-ideal figure in their lives.
There’s also Monk’s girlfriend, Coraline (Erika Alexander), Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), Monk’s mother’s live-in caretaker who forges a romantic relationship with a security guard (Raymond Anthony Thomas), and Wiley (Adam Brody), a producer who can’t wait to option Stagg R. Leigh’s “Fuck” as a movie, offering $4 million for the rights.
Jeffrey Wright is a triumph as Monk, an incredibly intelligent writer whose empathy deficiencies sometimes cloud his judgment. This is exhibited in early scenes with his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), who reveals that she was left to care for their mother when Monk and Cliff bolted west to pursue their dreams. Wright has total command on this character, conveying deadpan humor with decisive timing while cultivating a character who, not unlike Paul Giamatti’s Paul Hunham.
Cord Jefferson is in full command of his vision, whether he’s presenting us with biting commentary or richly conceived human drama. His grip on his characters is strong enough to be fully realized, while loose enough to allow Wright, Brown, Issa Rae, and Erika Alexander to illustrate them liberally. He even nails the conclusion, which is constructed as an aggressively meta choose-your-own-ending montage that would be nothing more than a hokey gimmick in lesser hands. Nearly every risk Jefferson takes in the writing department, he nails — a testament to a filmmaker whose vision is so strong and confident that it’s basically rendered incorruptible.
NOTE: American Fiction is now playing in theaters.
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Issa Rae, and Raymond Anthony Thomas. Directed by: Cord Jefferson.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!