Review – American Fiction

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Overview

Synopsis A struggling Black college professor stumbles into literary success by writing a satirically "Black" book that proves insanely popular among cynical white elites.

Length 1 hour, 57 minutes

Release Date September 8, 2023 (TIFF), December 15, 2023 (United States)

 

Rating R

Distribution Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Directing Cord Jefferson

Writing Cord Jefferson

Composition Laura Karpman

Starring Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown

There has been a movement in recent Black cinema to explore the complicated intersection between the Black experience and the intentions of White Liberals, who fancy themselves the greatest cheerleaders of civil rights and justice. The most notable of these films was Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which explored the tense realities of how performative progressivism hides dark motivations; including the desire to consume Black bodies and experiences while marginalizing actual Black people.

These stories are never simple, because these relationships are never simple. Get Out was even somewhat of a victim of this dynamic, with thousands of white film critics heaping extreme praise upon the film in a manner that comes across as over-enthusiastic—as though the people praising the film sensed that they were the people Peele was satirizing. Get Out is a great movie, but it is easy to see the dynamics he is satirizing in motion.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: One scene ends with a fantasy sequence of a police shootout, with a character being shot and bleeding to death.
Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout, including one character who tries to release a book titled F***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters are depicted snorting cocaine and drinking alcohol.
Sexual Content: Two characters implicitly have sex off-screen, and several characters discuss straight and gay sex, with one gay character talking about his time at gay bars and hanging out with undressed men.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: Some depictions of compromised moral integrity, sexual immorality, and some implied postmodern themes.
Positive Content: Themes of integrity, authenticity, and the cost of compromise.

Review

American Fiction is the newest film to explore the theme of how Blackness as a social expectation harms Black people and creates tension with White Liberals, being the first film from director Cord Jefferson (a writer for HBO’s Watchmen and Station Eleven) and produced by the Rian Johnson-backed production company T-Street. While it may be a more modest production, with just a $1.8 million budget, the film may well be among the best in its genre and one of the best showings in Black cinema for 2023.

The story follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a middle-aged college professor and author who is caught in a difficult moment in life. His newest book, an adaptation of the Greek play The Persians, is being ignored by book publishers while more shallow and superficially “Black”-sounding books are becoming bestsellers and leaving him without an audience. Despite being Black, Monk is not particularly enamored with the idea of living up to the simplistic societal expectation of “Blackness”, which seems to mean nothing more to his colleagues than gang violence, poverty, murder, single motherhood, poor grammar, and spending time in prison.

Unfortunately, this expectation sells because white liberal readers want to read superficial books about the street, rather than authentic works of literature written by Black artists. Monk decides to skirt the system and jokingly writes a fake book under an alias called The Pafology, which embraces blunt simplistic ideas about what it means to be Black. Naturally, he’s offered the largest offer of his career and gets sucked into a spiral of consequences and awkward conversations as the world embraces his fake book.

The ethos of American Fiction is best summarized by Monk’s literary agent. “White people don’t want the truth, they just want to feel absolved.” The literary world as it exists is one where nobody knows how to sell books anymore. Authentic books written by accomplished literary scholars are ignored, while simplistic works become bestselling novels talked about over cocktails. Monk’s literary rival in the film is a similarly accomplished author of a book called We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, which plays into the stereotypes he hates and naturally becomes popular.

As Monk tells her later in the film, books like this flatten Black lives and reduce their stories to convenient stories to be consumed. Meanwhile, he compromises and becomes richer than he could imagine, noting, “The dumber I behave, the richer I get.”

Naturally, the movie presents its white characters as its most extreme and reactionary. In one scene, several white literary agents get caught up in a hostile defund-the-police rant while their two Black colleagues are frustrated and trying to get their jobs done. Conversely, Monk and his family are all fully rounded and complex characters, spinning a parallel story about family drama, death, love, dementia, and the difficulties of maintaining healthy family connections in a real way.

Curiously, the movie doesn’t necessarily have a single answer to the questions and ideas it’s raising. The final scenes offer multiple different endings, with Monk himself commentating how none of these endings necessarily feel real—a somewhat pretentious concession that Hollywood endings with sweeping romantic gestures and action scenes don’t necessarily resolve the escalating moral quandaries the movie is trying to authentically dialogue with. It’s enough just to dramatize the problems, but he doesn’t need to know how to fix them.

While the trailers show most of the big scenes in the film, the movie itself is remarkably quiet and reflective. The meat of the film just comes in exploring Monk’s life, showing all the complicated ways that he is just a person trapped between stupid systems and a lifetime of challenges; including grappling with his brother’s closeted homosexuality, his mother’s debilitating memory loss, his romantic failures, and his frustration with his own identity and career.

In a year with some very funny movies like Asteroid City and The Holdovers, American Fiction does a wonderful job tackling complicated and challenging subject matters in a way that’s funny and meaningful. It marks a very impressive directorial debut and might be the strongest film of 2023 alongside Celine Song’s Past Lives.

Positives

+ Excellent script
+ Great first-time direction
+ Excellent Jeffrey Wright performance

Negatives

- Somewhat thematically inconclusive
- Some one-dimensional white characters

The Bottom Line

American Fiction is an impressive first-time film for director Cord Jefferson, and one of the best original comedies in a year of strong contenders.

 

9

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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