Over the past month, I have watched roughly 40 to 50 films, most of which I enjoyed to varying degrees. While certain films at festivals like Telluride, TIFF, and Venice end up not being part of the awards discussion, a lot of critics, journalists, and award pundits walk into a good portion of these premieres or screenings hoping to answer the question, “Is this film an awards contender?” upon exiting the theater. I watched many films that will or could be in the awards conversation, but American Fiction was an unexpected surprise and the true underdog this award season.
American Fiction stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an English professor and struggling novelist. Monk prides himself on writing novels that challenge the reader and has become deeply bothered by how the industry repeatedly continues to sell, push, and cash in on clichéd and offensive black narratives. One evening, as a joke, Monk decides to write a book that plays up all of the black narratives and stereotypes he despises. So, under the pen name Stagg R. Lee, Monk sends the book to his agent. To Monk’s surprise, the agent loves it, and the book quickly becomes something everyone in town wants to buy.
I have always been a big fan of satire, but good satire is hard to find nowadays. American Fiction is a sharply-written and whip-smart satire that isn’t afraid of poking fun at Hollywood and the entire media industry for trying to cash in things like slavery and police brutality while continuing to keep negative stereotypes alive. Cord Jefferson’s screenplay, adapted from Percival Everett‘s novel Erasure, asks tough questions and isn’t afraid to make the audience think.
Certain scenes, particularly the ones between Monk and Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), offer a lot of food for thought and showcase how two people of the same skin color can see things from a totally different perspective. The overall theme in American Fiction concerns bias and prejudice and how they impact Black artists, including writers, directors, and actors. The film never gives the audience answers, but it consistently brings up the black experience and how it is seen through various lenses, including the media.
Arguably Hollywood’s best-kept secret, Jeffrey Wright, is at the top of his game in this film. The character of Monk is such a pretentious and entitled prick, but you can’t help but fall in love with the guy. He’s incredibly smart and wants to see stories being told from his experience as a black man. With so many movies and television shows targeting marginalized voices and communities, it is interesting to see a character like Monk, a sophisticated black man, fight the system in hopes of seeing a person like himself in a book or on the big screen. Wright embodies Monk while also evolving as a person throughout the film. It is quite the performance and, honestly, one of the best I have seen this year.
As I have noted in several of my recent reviews, I feel like American Fiction is the kind of film that you want to go into knowing very little about. I feel like too many reviewers nowadays go into too much detail and break down far too many scenes that the element of surprise is gone by the time you see the film. Without going into too much detail, the film’s ending is powerful and dives into the whole idea of who Monk is today vs. who he was at the beginning of the film. The end is very funny, but it makes you wonder whether Monk sold out and somehow becomes everything he hates.
American Fiction is in no way a showy film, but one that showcases minimalistic direction is all you need when you have a near-perfect script and a brilliant cast to bring the story and its characters to life. While American Fiction is not the type of film that will ultimately be nominated for a dozen Oscars, it is the type of film that I can see being nominated for at least three categories, which include Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor. American Fiction is a genuine crowdpleaser that doesn’t play it safe. It challenges the audiences and will leave viewers talking for several hours, if not days, after seeing it. American Fiction is the year’s best, funniest, and smartest film.