'American Fiction': It’s Hard Out Here for an Author
Jeffrey Wright can do no wrong.
Television writer Cord Jefferson (Watchmen, The Good Place) sure did choose an ambitious project for his directorial debut. American Fiction is based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, Erasure, and even putting aside the fact that the book is an epistolary which does not easily lend itself to adaptation, the topics set forth in the story are, to put it mildly, complex.
The story follows Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (the nickname is obviously meaningful - but so is the surname), a novelist and professor of the same grumpy, condescending academic variety as Paul Giamatti’s character in The Holdovers. His books are critically well-received but don’t sell many copies, and his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), can’t get any publishers to purchase his latest manuscript, because his erudite novels are somehow not “Black enough” - buyers, he’s told, want something more akin to a new book by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), called We's Lives in Da Ghetto. On top of that, Monk is given an involuntary leave of absence from his teaching job after he runs afoul of a White student who objects to him teaching Flannery O’Connor’s The Artificial N****r.
So he heads home to Boston to see the upper middle class family that he mostly holds at arm’s length - his newly-divorced doctor sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), his recently-un-closeted plastic surgeon brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), and his widowed mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams) - only to find that his mother is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s and is desperately in need of costly medical care. In a fit of anger, he writes a outsized parody of the books his agent says publishers want, My Pafology, under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. To his surprise, however, My Pafology not only gets purchased for a smooth $750,000, but it becomes a bona-fide hit, optioned for a movie adaptation by a big-shot producer (Adam Brody) and submitted for a prestigious literary award that none of Monk’s “real” books have ever actually won. Naturally, this success rubs Monk the wrong way, and as he clings to (what he considers to be) his shameful secret, it begins to weigh heavily on his personal relationships, including a budding romance with a neighbor, Coraline (Erika Alexander).
The connective tissue between all these storylines is the relationship to the self. Monk isn’t just being dishonest when he writes My Pafology, or when he promotes it with claims that it’s based on a true story; he’s dishonest with Coraline and his family. Cliff has also struggled to be his authentic self, and Agnes’ neurodegenerative disease robs her of both her own identity and her ability to tell other people apart. Even the Flannery O’Connor text in question reflects this theme: A White character in the story, observing a statue modeled on minstrel shows, comments, “They ain't got enough real [Black people] here. They got to have an artificial one.”
As I said: American Fiction does not want for ambition. It has to balance tones, satirizing pop culture’s fetishization of Black culture and White liberals’ love of guilt porn while maintaining a level of earnestness with regards to the familial drama… and it has to explore some questions that simply do not have easy answers. Is it limiting for Black artists to portray themselves as the kind of lower class, uneducated street toughs seen in movies like Boyz n the Hood and Precious, or is it limiting to say Black artists can’t portray themselves that way? Is it wrong for a Black artist to make a living by ostensibly giving the (White) people what they want? How should Black artists navigate these conundrums?
As far as the tricky tonal shifts go, Jefferson handles these masterfully - American Fiction is absolutely a movie that has room to both laugh at a White woman telling a Black man that it’s important to listen to Black voices even as she’s shouting down his voice AND make you teary when Monk’s mother gets confused about where she is and who she’s with or Cliff struggles with his sexuality. Only occasionally does American Fiction flirt with sentimentality, and even then, it never derails the film or detracts from the more comedic aspects of the narrative. And make no mistake: American Fiction is VERY funny.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that every single member of the cast is a goddamn champion. Jeffrey Wright can do more with a subtle wrinkle of his brow than most actors can with a Shakespearean soliloquy, and Ross, Brown, Uggams, and Ortiz couldn’t give bad performances if their very lives depended on it. I suspect the real revelation, at least for some viewers, will be Alexander, who is less famous than her castmates, but has charisma to burn - her role is the least well-developed, and she still holds your attention every time she’s on screen. Brody is excellent at playing a Hollywood nitwit, and there’s also a myriad of other talented actors - Myra Lucretia Taylor, Miriam Shor, Raymond Anthony Thomas, and American goddamn treasure Keith David amongst them - who all hit the ball out of the park in smaller supporting roles.
Those extremely complicated racial issues, however, are a whole other story. As a White dude, I feel personally unfit to answer these questions - but then, so does the movie. Some major story threads are left very deliberately dangling, and the degree to which Monk does or does not “sell out” or finally learn to be authentic self is at least somewhat ambiguous. That’s completely understandable intellectually, and it’s admirable that Jefferson avoided being trite, even if some viewers, regardless of their race, may feel like American Fiction lacks a satisfying conclusion.
One thing I do feel comfortable saying as a White guy is that while American Fiction delights in ribbing White liberals’ fixation on Black stories of a certain nature, it doesn’t really take White people to task for that fixation. Nothing in this film is as biting or angry as Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, or even Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I'm a Liberal.” In fact, it seems entirely feasible that my fellow White liberals will like American Fiction more than any other audience, because it allows them to laugh at themselves without feeling too harshly judged. For all its strengths, American Fiction feels like a slap on the wrist, not a punch in the face.