‘American Fiction’ Review: Black Writes

Aaron Neuwirth reviews American Ficton, a comedy-drama and biting satire focused on a novelist pushed to amusing extremes while also contending with family drama.
User Rating: 8

Watching actors think on screen can be one of the most fascinating things to watch in cinema. Jeffrey Wright’s character in American Fiction, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, is given this opportunity several times. The film balances family drama with a satirical story focused on fame achieved through an approach to race. Through this, Monk has to work through several challenges, as his character’s frustrations leave him in situations that make him often the smartest person in the room and, at other times, the most bullheaded. Thanks to the work of debut filmmaker Cord Jefferson, this all leads to humorous scenarios and compelling drama. And in all that has gone into the construction of this film, it still holds onto the opportunities of letting us watch Monk think, as there’s a lot to call into question regarding what an audience can take from Black authors.

Based on the 2001 novel, Erasure, by Percival Everett, in this story, Monk is a novelist and professor. He’s been told his work is not “Black enough,” which is why his books are not popular. Meanwhile, author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) has achieved major success with her novel “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto,” which Monk sees as a means to carry on with stereotypical stories from the hood rather than more captivating literature. In a joking response, Monk writes his own stereotypical novel, “My Pafology,” only for circumstances leading to it being taken seriously and published, receiving widespread acclaim in the process.

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This whole concept, on its own, could easily spin itself into a tight comedic commentary focused on skewering various sides of culture and the media industry. We could watch Monk attempt to balance his own life with this newly created alter-ego that sits as the author of “My Pafology” and watch the story build to some insightful crescendo where the character has an epiphany and finds a creative way to explain what’s been learned and how all should respond in return.

If it’s not clear already, that layout could easily be a trope-laden path more fitting of a traditional Black comedy aiming for prestige acknowledgment. Outside intentions aside, American Fiction makes the more intelligent choice by resting this aspect of Monk’s story on the side, while his personal life drives much of the plot. For various reasons, Monk needs to be back home near his mother (Leslie Uggams) and is joined by his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) and brother (Sterling K. Brown). More developments occur from there, throwing Monk’s life into further turmoil. He gets some relief from a neighbor, Coraline (Erika Alexander). Still, so much of the film focuses on why Monk is unhappy.

That’s a tricky path to follow, as it means the protagonist is often caught in situations that don’t paint him in the best light. And yet, Wright is fantastic here, relying on both his way with dialogue and a subtle amount of physicality that allows us to understand where he feels he fits within the world around him. Seeing his evident disgust with the way certain Black stories are told, let alone in how they are eaten up by an audience not content with anything but heightened scenarios relying on simplistic labels, pushes him in ways that make it fortunate he can bounce his concerns off other characters.

Having a strong supporting cast to be both sounding boards as well as competing voices only adds to the vision being presented. Issa Rae, for example, is in this film just enough to provide a counterargument to Monk, which could lead to sufficient material for a whole other story. John Ortiz is hilarious as Monk’s friend and publisher, who is trying to guide him down the successful path despite Monk’s objections. There’s even a brief cameo from the always-welcome Keith David, who supplies Monk’s false literary opus with a voice to portray just how outlandish it is.

It’s the more personally connected characters, however, who make the most significant difference, as they are not worried about really getting in Monk’s face about his opinions. Erika Alexander is terrific as a love interest with enough experience and maturity to want to see eye-to-eye with this man, but not if he’s withholding from her. Brown and Ross are siblings with clear similarities to their erudite brother, allowing for playful sparring and serious talks. The only downside with these characters is that we do not get more of them to allow even deeper characterization.

That’s the other clever thing offered by Jefferson, however. In the midst of Monk’s dealings with his ridiculous spite book, various things take place in his private life that could easily be skewed towards over-the-top melodrama. Be it deaths, estranged relatives, surprise weddings, etc., while American Fiction may pack in several major events, we are watching them play out from the eyes of real characters with grounded ways of considering the changes occurring around them. It may lead to the wrong choices being made by our protagonist, but it speaks to how imperfect he is in a world that he feels treats him unfairly.

Given the genuine heart, one can see in this story that it’s all the more fitting that this film takes a laid-back approach to its plotting and pacing. As much urgency as there may seem to be in the book plot, Jefferson is happy to have these characters hang out as much as possible, as they discuss the current status quo, what’s going on with them, or what is causing any sort of stress. Laura Karpman’s easygoing score only adds to this feeling as we watch these characters in their pleasant East Coast environments.

Ending a film like this could be tricky, but without delving further into it, I can just say this film manages to see out a few expectations in a manner befitting of the story we’ve been watching. Wright gets his time to shine as far as how we get to leave off with him, and the message never feels too didactic. Instead, American Fiction offers a frequently funny look at how some assess the material provided by a culture and what it means to defy these notions in sly ways. At the same time, we see a well-developed family drama unfold, offering characters we are simply happy to sit with, listen to, and watch think. That’s good Black fiction.

American Fiction opens in select theaters on December 15, 2023, expanding wide on December 22.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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