Review: ‘American Fiction’

Jeffrey Wright Leaves Them Bamboozled In Funny, Insightful Satire About Plight Of The Black Writer

*NOTE: This review was originally part of our Middleburg Film Festival coverage.*

In 1985, Robert Townsend offered one of the most insightful, and funniest looks at the relationship between art and Black culture with Hollywood Shuffle. The film followed a Black actor who struggled with staying true to himself, or “selling out” and pandering to a White audience that craved stories full of Black stereotypes. Writer/director Cord Jefferson’s equally brilliant and pointed American Fiction is like a spiritual cousin exploring the literary landscape, where many of the themes that Townsend addressed 40 years ago are sadly still relevant.

Jeffrey Wright, one of the best actors working today, paints a complex, hilarious portrait of delusion as Thelonius “Monk” Ellison. An accomplished author who has been struggling to get his next, highly-intellectual novel published as viral authors such as Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) make waves with stories of Black trauma and pain in the inner-city that make White people feel comfortable and critics call “important.” Fed up by it all, Monk turns the tables by writing a pandering piece of trash full of every cliche about African-Americans he can find, which he comes up with by watching a bunch of Black movies from the ’90s, an era in which these stories were prevalent. Of course, Monk’s book becomes a smash hit, and while he’s hidden under a pseudonym (the ridiculously thuggish Stagg R. Lee), he still wants to find a way to get out of this mess he created.

This would be extremely silly if Monk wasn’t such a complicated, fascinating jumble of contradictions and biases.  There’s clearly a lot of self-loating eating away at him, in particular regarding his upper-middle-class upbringing and taste for the finer things. It’s as if he resents the idea of being judged for his blackness, so he steers clear of anything that could remotely be defined as “Black”. He doesn’t even like it when one of his books is placed in the African-American Studies section of the library. This is the same guy whose angry defense of teaching Flannery O’Connor’s The Artificial Ni**er drove an offended white student out of the classroom in tears. Mostly, he resents authors such as Golden who, in his mind, diminish Black potential so they can make money making entertainment to comfort the white gatekeepers.

So does that make Monk a sell out for doing exactly the same thing? His scheme is netting big money, which he uses to pay for medical treatment for his ailing mom (the always-great Leslie Uggams) and to help keep the struggling family afloat. Jefferson, adapting Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, smartly ensures that his film isn’t limited by comedic satirization. In fact, what’s great about American Fiction is that it isn’t so easily defined. It’s part family dramedy, part literary and Hollywood satire, and part character study. Monk’s family life is just as critical to this story and helps lend dramatic heft. The Ellison clan are all brilliant, a total family of doctors in different fields. Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown, and Uggams make for incredible elements of this ensemble, while it’s also great to see Erika Alexander in a love interest role as a neighbor whom Monk falls for. The problem is Monk is also extremely closed off from his emotions and fails to connect with just about everybody. He’s not quite on the American Splendor Harvey Pekar scale, but Monk is a bit of a curmudgeon.

Jefferson nearly lets things spin out of control with the introduction of Adam Brody as a hot-shot Hollywood producer who wants to turn the Stagg R. book into a movie. As he confirms all of the industry ignorance the film has been commenting on, he also nearly throws the film out of balance comedically. But it’s hard to complain when you’re laughing so hard. The only time the film does get away from Jefferson is in the closing moments, a branching set of paths that are too cute by half. American Fiction is nonetheless an impressive feature debut for Jefferson, offering sharp wit, and a heartfelt, at times heartbreaking look at Black intellectuals living their lives outside of how the world perceives them.

American Fiction opens in select theaters on December 15th, before expanding on December 22nd. Everywhere in January.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
American Fiction
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-american-fiction*NOTE: This review was originally part of our Middleburg Film Festival coverage.* In 1985, Robert Townsend offered one of the most insightful, and funniest looks at the relationship between art and Black culture with Hollywood Shuffle. The film followed a Black actor who struggled with staying...