Directed by: Cord Jefferson
Premise: Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett. A Black novelist (Jeffrey Wright) is frustrated with the stories of poverty and crime that define Black culture so he writes a satire that is taken literally. At the same time his mother (Leslie Uggams) struggles with dementia.
What Works: American Fiction is split between a satire and a family drama and each half works with the other to advance the film’s critical and subversive themes. This satirical half of American Fiction is incisive and very funny. The film is a response to pictures like Precious and The Help and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that offer bleak visions of Black life. Monk is a literary novelist frustrated by the financial failure of his own work while books that pander to white readers, offering them debased Black caricatures under the guise of relevance and social justice, do extremely well. He writes a parody of that genre under a pseudonym and it becomes a huge success. Meanwhile, Monk’s family suffers a series of tragedies and his mother is diagnosed with dementia. The two parts of American Fiction contrast Monk’s personal life and its nuanced story of love and compassion and identity with the book’s thuggish tale of Black life. The two stories offer differing perspectives on what defines or ought to define Black life in America. The film complicates that binary with some pointed dialogue between Monk and a fellow Black writer (Issa Rae) and their conversations with other writers judging a prestigious book award. This aspect of American Fiction extends the film’s critique to the contests and publishers and organizations that acts as arbiters of good taste and high culture. The satire is especially vicious in its regard for the way racial politics has warped conversations about art and rewarded regressive stereotypes. Jeffrey Wright stars as Monk and it’s a brilliant performance. He’s a prickly character and Wright doesn’t shy away from making Monk difficult but he’s also very funny and his irascibility is understandable in context.
What Doesn’t: The pacing of American Fiction is a bit slow especially in the first half. The filmmakers favor the family drama over the satirical publishing plot and a lot more screentime is spent on Monk’s family than on writing and publishing. The imbalance is warranted in that the filmmakers spend their time on what needs dramatization and the family story offers an alternative vision of Black life that is tragic in its own way but without demeaning an entire community. The ending of American Fiction is a bit of a cheat; the filmmakers find a way of working in multiple resolutions but in a way that mostly suits the way storytellers must negotiate audience expectations.
Bottom Line: American Fiction is a smart and subversive satire. Its criticism is on point and courageous enough to direct ire not only at other filmmakers and the art establishment but at the audience as well. This film is also very funny.
Episode: #981 (January 21, 2024)