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Thrilling Satire ‘American Fiction’ Is a Cinematic Stick of Dynamite

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO, Canada—Jeffrey Wright can do it all, and he does in American Fiction, playing an author and college professor in crisis who returns home and, in a rash attempt to channel his anger and frustration, winds up perpetrating an absurdist fraud. Infusing his protagonist with a messy blend of fury, exasperation, fear, regret, bitterness and loneliness, Wright is at once deeply touching and extremely funny, handling his role’s complex array of combative and paradoxical emotions and impulses with the deftness of an artist at the absolute top of his game. If he’s ever been better, it’s difficult to remember when, and thrillingly, his latest is a triumphant satire about race, exploitation, family and identity that’s as rich and captivating as his tour-de-force.

A standout at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, American Fiction is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, and an immensely auspicious feature debut for its veteran TV writer/director Cord Jefferson, whose film successfully balances the serious and the ridiculous. That’s apparent from the get-go, when Los Angeles-based Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Wright) snaps at a white female student for expressing her discomfort with the title of Flannery O’Conner’s The Artificial Nigger (“I got over it, I’m pretty sure you can too”).

This is another in an apparent series of classroom infractions, and when coupled with the fact that Monk hasn’t penned a new novel in years, it earns him an indefinite leave of absence. With a book convention on the horizon, he reluctantly relocates back to his native Boston, where he’s forced to reconnect with his clan—namely, his women’s health clinic physician sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams), who’s showing early signs of the Alzheimer’s disease that will soon decimate her.

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As the oft-absent Monk tries to reintegrate himself into his family, American Fiction divulges additional details about his complicated connection to his late adulterous father (whom he was close to, thus alienating him from his siblings) and his brother Clifford (a superb Sterling K. Brown), a plastic surgeon contending with the fallout from his hetero marriage’s end courtesy of a homosexual affair. Antipathy and disappointment, guilt and jealousy, resentment and disgust, loyalty and trust bind these relatives and their long-time housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), whom everyone refers to, and treats, as a de facto Ellison. For Monk, dealing with his brother, sister, and mother is at once joyful and, because of long-standing tensions, uncomfortable, and it proves downright painful when unexpected tragedy strikes, thus forcing the author to split his time between their primary house and beach cabin.

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If misfortune plagues Monk, so too does seething aggravation at the state of his career and modern Black fiction. No matter the color of his skin, Monk doesn’t consider himself a Black writer; at a bookstore, he even tries to relocate his titles out of the African-American section. Moreover, he’s disgusted by a marketplace, and publishing industry, that covets only stereotypical tales of Black woe, full of gangsters and slaves, drugs and crime, neglect and victimization. As an intellectual who hails from a family of doctors, Monk finds this all to be reductive and phony, and specifically designed to cater to white guilt-wracked audiences. To Monk, the embodiment of this trend is Sinatra Golden (Issa Rae), an Oberlin-educated writer whose popular first novel is a Black patois-drenched saga of street life titled We’s Lives In Da Ghetto that trades in limiting and ugly clichés for acclaim and profit.

Dubbed “Detective Dictionary” by his sister, Monk responds to omnipresent disarray and dissatisfaction by drunkenly penning his own crass, pandering “Black” novel: My Pafology, a compendium of melodramatic crud (Absentee fathers! Guns! Eyepatches!) that American Fiction dramatizes coming to life in front of, and interacting with, Monk at his laptop.

Monk subsequently sends it to his agent Arthur (John Ortiz) and demands that it be passed along to those who rejected his serious-minded Aeschylus-inspired book, all as a nasty joke about their performative tolerance and the gross prejudice lurking beneath it. Arthur complies, and it’s at this point that Jefferson’s film spirals into loopiness, with My Pafology becoming a hit, attracting ravenous attention from publishers who rave about its “perfect,” “raw” “visceral energy” and Hollywood directors (Adam Brody) who dream of turning it into Oscar bait—and are smitten with its (phony) author Stag R Leigh, whom Monk has to inhabit as a thug-ish fugitive criminal.

Photo still of Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Uggams in 'American Fiction'
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Before long, Monk is juggling his newfound pseudonymous fame with his mother’s ailing health, his brother’s detachment and antagonism, and a budding romance with charming public defender Coraline (Erika Alexander). If he has a lot on his plate, Jefferson does as well, what with his material’s varying degrees of gravity and silliness. Monk’s scam eventually crisscrosses with his duties as a literary prize judge (he’s been selected to enhance the organization’s diversity) and affects his ability to care for his mom, and the writer/director finds all sorts of pointedly funny ways to highlight how Black narratives are co-opted and commodified by (and for) white people, Monk’s trouble connecting with others and himself, and the intersection of art, business, honesty and greed.

It’s a film of myriad contradictions, none more central than Monk’s desperate desire to be seen as a multifaceted individual, his inability to lucidly see himself, and his wish to keep anyone from knowing that he’s the caricature behind My Pafology—whose title he ultimately changes to Fuck, much to everyone’s delight.

American Fiction grapples with an array of hot-button topics with biting wit and heartfelt candor, leaving no one unscathed in the process. Coraline calls Monk “sad funny” and that also describes his story, fixated as it is on the thorny relationship between creativity and commerce, brothers and sisters, parents and children, and uncomfortable truths and the lies we tell ourselves and others. Being real, and whole, and accepted is Monk’s primary challenge, as is taking to heart Coraline’s belief that “people are more than their worst deed.”

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Jefferson’s script is rife with home-run one-liners and gags about our race-obsessed present, and as the man in the middle of a private and public maelstrom (much of it of his own making), Wright is a magnetic wonder. Sarcastic and sincere, caustic and compassionate, and arrogant and insecure, his Monk—and the film itself—is something rare: legitimately, rousingly, unforgettably three-dimensional.

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