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American Fiction

Directed by Cord Jefferson
Produced by Ben LeClair, Cord Jefferson, Jermaine Johnson, and Nikos Karamigios
Screenplay by Cord Jefferson Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett
With: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Keith David, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Raymond Anthony Thomas, Okieriete Onaodowan, Miriam Shor, Michael Cyril Creighton, and Patrick Fischler
Cinematography: Cristina Dunlap
Editing: Hilda Rasula
Music: Laura Karpman
Runtime: 117 min
Release Date: 22 December 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

I usually try to know as little as possible about a movie going into it, but American Fiction was shot locally and stars an old friend, so I couldn't avoid the trailer and some of the early buzz. Based on what I'd heard, I didn't think I was going to like it much. What a wonderful surprise it was! I love it when a movie turns out to be something different and better than the marketing indicated.

American culture has become bizarre and extreme in so many ways since the turn of the Millennium that social satirists have had to bend over backward to ridiculous lengths when attempting to keep up. As a result, few recent films in the genre have had much impact or meaning. Satire feels empty when it shows you something you can already see with your own eyes, and when it underlines things that are already bolded, capitalized, and followed by multiple exclamation points, it's downright annoying.

On its surface, American Fiction might appear to be just that type of satire. The film stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a frustrated African-American novelist and English professor. His books don't sell well compared to the more sensationalistic "from da' hood" novels and memoirs by Black authors that the predominantly white liberal book-buying crowd can't get enough of. On a whim, and mostly out of spite, Monk writes the most outrageously "Black" book he can, filling it with every possible racial stereotype and trope. Of course, when his literary agent (John Ortiz) submits it to publishers. Monk gets a major deal, and the novel, published under the nom de plume Stagg R. Leigh, becomes a hit.

Nothing about Cord Jefferson's adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure plays like a broad send-up of contemporary culture. It's a perfectly plausible premise for a contemporary comedy, and the events portrayed never come across as reductive, hyperbolic commentary on the state of popular culture. The film feels like a scathing satire of the state of the publishing industry in the 2020s, in the same way Robert Altman's The Player took laser-focused aim at the film industry of the 1990s. But in both cases, the skewerings are so spot-on that folks working in these fields might not experience the films as satire at all.

Monk, American Fiction's protagonist, is contending with vexations both professional and personal. He's a writer, but his work is undervalued by his industry and the culture in general, leading him to engage in a literary deception that brings unforeseen complications and consequences. His family life is thorny too. Monk's mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), is struggling with dementia. His brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), who has always harbored resentment towards the family, has recently embraced his identity as a gay man and has no desire to leave his newfound single life to help Monk with their mom. On top of all this, Monk is starting a romance with an attractive new neighbor (Erika Alexander). He's reluctant to share anything about his professional life with her since he's not exactly proud of what he's gotten himself into.

Everything that unfolds in this movie's "main narrative," about Monk's inadvertent takedown of the liberal white establishment, doesn't exist strictly to serve itself. It is the primary comical situation complicating Monk's world, but at least as much screen time is devoted to exploring this personal life as to the wild developments of his publishing career. The dramatic and lightly comedic family-oriented "subplots," if you can call them subplots, serve the picture's themes as well as the outrageous premise does. American Fiction obviously got made because of its comedic, high-concept conceit, yet the less extreme human story is what makes it such a memorable picture.

Modern movies about Black characters that crossover to multiracial audiences and win awards at film festivals are still usually limited to intense historical dramas about slavery like 12 Years a Slave (2012) and Harriet (2019), high-concept comedies like Get Out (2017) and Sorry to Bother You (2018), or poetic indies about the violence endured by urban poor folks like Fruitvale Station (2013) and Moonlight (2016). Of course, those films deserve all their acclaim and audiences, but features dealing with middle-class Black family dynamics are every bit as interesting as the many films we get about the ups and downs of White American middle-class life. It is rare, for instance, to see a film like this in which a Black family has a summer beach house—not because it's unusual for a Black family to have a summer home but because of how most media choose to depict African-American life. This unfortunate fact limits the type of roles available to actors of color. I can't even remember the last time I saw Leslie Uggams in a movie. I guess she’s in the Deadpool films, but still, what an underused actor! The first-rate ensemble of Wright, Brown, Uggams, Alexander, and Ortiz shouldn't feel like such an outlier cast in a major 2023 release, but it unfortunately does.

The juxtaposition of the fictional Stagg R. Leigh's rise to fame with real-life Monk's comparatively mundane but still thoroughly engaging personal story drives home this movie's points about race and the whims of market forces better than any individual scene or set piece glimpsed in the film's trailer ever could. Some audiences will probably be disappointed, feeling the trailer promised them something much more biting. And fair enough. Harsh satires, like this year's Bottoms, have scored big time with audiences hungry for visceral responses to our current cultural moment. Bottoms delivers on those terms, but I find movies of that sort hit the same nail on the same head so often and so hard that their points become dull long before the climax. American Fiction’s contemporary zeitgeist tale hews closer to an older, less laugh-obsessed tradition of Hollywood comedy. It succeeds on its own terms as a memorable story about universally relatable characters.

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This comical tale of a frustrated African-American author who becomes an accidental success when his fake "Blacked up" novel becomes a major hit may seem like a broad satire of contemporary culture but it scores on its own terms due to how grounded in reality it is.