American Fiction (2023)

Written by:
James Greenberg
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More than thirty-five years after Robert Townsend’s groundbreaking film “Hollywood Shuffle” parodied the roles open to Black actors in Hollywood—pimps, slaves, hoods and Eddie Murphy-types—“American Fiction” takes an updated look at the same stereotypes in literature and movies, and, no surprise, they haven’t changed all that much. In pop culture, white audiences still want the same thing: jive ass street Blacks, gangsters and clowns.

“American Fiction” starts off with a bang. Refined and erudite Professor Thelonious ”Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) has written the name of a Flannery O’Connor short story, “The Artificial Nigger,” on the blackboard for a course on the literature of the American South. When a white student indignantly objects, he says, “I got over it, I’m pretty sure you can, too.”

To say that Monk is politically incorrect is an understatement; politically indifferent would be more accurate. Monk likes to think of himself as existing above the fray. He doesn’t want to write the Great Black Novel so much as he wants to write the Great American Novel. But lately he hasn’t been writing much of anything, at least not getting it published. Frustrated, broke and tired of being ignored, he spews out a novel satirizing how Blacks are portrayed in literature. Full of gangsters from the hood and street talking punks, his book becomes a sensation, much to Monk’s chagrin and amazement.

The notion of a fake literary persona, based on Percival Everett’s novel, “Erasure,” and echoing the JT LeRoy publishing scandal of the early 2000s, is an ingenious premise for a film. It’s a way for first time writer/director Jefferson, who has previously written episodes for TV shows as varied as “Watchmen” and “The Good Place,” to muse about what is expected from a Black artist.

Jefferson shares Monk’s outrage and at the same time plays with the absurdity of Black identity clichés. The real feat of the film is the delicate balancing act between humor and seriousness, sometimes in the same beat. It’s a treat to see a gallery of splendid characters, who happen to be black, just going about their messy lives.

Like most people, Monk has a complicated relationship with his family. On a visit from Los Angeles, where he lives, to Boston, where he grew up, he reconnects with his sweet but demanding mother (a regal performance by veteran actress Leslie Uggams), his promiscuous plastic surgeon brother (Sterling K. Brown), longtime housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and other sundry characters. And casting an oversized shadow over the family and Monk’s psyche is his deceased philandering gynecologist father.

The charade of Monk’s new career, spurred on by his loyal but opportunistic agent (John Ortiz), takes on a life of its own. Pushing the boundaries of credibility to see what he can get away with and just for the fun of it, Monk passes himself off to the publisher as Stagg R. Leigh, a con on the lam from the law, and insists that his book be titled “Fuck.” Delighted by its authenticity, the arbiters of taste open the gates for him.

In a turn of events, as irresistible as they are inevitable, Monk is recruited (in the interest of diversity) to be a judge on a literary awards panel to which his novel has been submitted. A cross section of white literary types—a liberal woman, fey academic and faux cowboy—gives it a big thumbs up. Monk insists the book is crap but it’s out of his hands. A fawning white audience has usurped the cause of black representation.

No wonder Monk is confused. He’s tangled up in his own stuff— dealing with a sick mother, a wildcard brother and a new girlfriend (Erika Alexander)—on top of what society expects him to be.

But Wright’s warm and nuanced performance makes Monk an immensely likable character, the kind of guy you’d want to have a single malt Scotch with. And Laura Karpman’s smooth piano-based score, reminiscent of Monk’s namesake, Thelonious Monk, is a perfect accompaniment.

When the character of Monk’s brother is on the verge of becoming a sitcom caricature of a gay man, Jefferson brings the film back from the brink with a moment of deep humanity. In the end, “American Fiction” is less about black and white, and more a film about feelings—anger, sadness, love and everyday joy. Just as Monk would have it.

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