American Fiction (2023)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Cord Jefferson
Run Time
1 hour and 57 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★4.5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

 Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

Romans 12:2 (JB Phillips)
Black author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison finds love when he meets lawyer Coralene, a neighbor of his mother. (c) MGM

Director Cord Jefferson’s film, adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, is a delightful satire in which a Black writer adapts a bizarre strategy of fighting back against white society’s tendency to “squeeze” him into its “mould” (British spelling). At times it reminded me of Spike Lee’s equally delightful film Bamboozled in which a frustrated Black writer foists an outrageous TV show filled with racial stereotypes upon a network—and to his surprise, his proposal is greenlighted. Jefferson’s film combines social satire with romantic comedy and is even a strong family drama—there’s something for just about everybody in this film.

Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is an author whose books have been critically praised but never sold well, hence he makes his living as a college professor. His current manuscript has been rejected as “not Black enough. “Of course, with that first name, everyone calls him “Monk,” even though he is not musical.

In a class lecture his use of racial language makes some of the white students feel uncomfortable, and when he says in effect, “Get over it,” one of them files a complaint. The committee of his peers chastises him, forcing him to take a leave of absence—they suggest that he attend a literary conference in his hometown of Boston and reconnect with his family.

Returning to Boston, he is upset when he sees on TV an interview with Black author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae). She is middle class, but has set her female protagonists in the ghetto, about which she knows very little. The terrible title We’s Lives In Da Ghetto suggests that it is filled with racial stereotypes. He is very resentful that it has become so popular, whereas his books have sold so poorly. He hates that for a book by a Black author to be accepted by white readers it must deal with ghetto gangs, drug abuse, racist trauma, or slavery. At the literary conference just a handful of people attend his workshop, whereas it is SRO in Sintara Golden’s.

To relieve his deep frustration he decides to write a novel filled with racial stereotypes. Throwing aside all concern for style, he dashes it off, at first calling it My Pathology, and then wanting to degrade it further, renaming it My Pafology. We are allowed to see how silly the book must be in the funny sequence in which Monk sits at his typewriter and two of the characters come alive in front of him. As he types out their lines, they speak them. When he pauses to think what they should say next, the characters enter into a dialogue with the author.

Monk’s agent, Arthur (John Ortiz) requires some persuasion to send the manuscript off. “Monk, who do you expect to buy it?” the agent asks. “Nobody,” he says. “I just want to rub their noses in it.” Arthur accedes, the fake novel being sent under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. (This is from the name of the St. Louis pimp “Stagg” Lee Shelton who murdered a rival and was celebrated in various versions of a late 19th century song.) To the surprise of both of them, a publisher options the novel, becoming enthusiastic about its potential sales—even more so when a Hollywood producer wants to film it, boosting the upfront payment to six figures. “I wrote it as a joke!” Monk says, to which Arthur replies, “Well, it’s the most lucrative joke you’ve ever written.”

The series of back-and-forth phone calls among Monk & Artur and the publishers and Hollywood producer are also very funny. Monk invents a gangster just-out-of prison biography to explain why he cannot meet in person—supposedly he is on the run from the authorities. He pushes the envelope by demanding that the title be changed to F- -ck, a demand that shocks those on the other end of the line, but to which they agree, even becoming enthusiastic about the daring of such an unorthodox title.

During all of the above, Monk is dealing with a fraught personal life. His mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams) has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), the one family member with whom he is especially close, is unable to offer much in the way of financial help for their mother’s care–and then suddenly is removed from the scene. His brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) also is home from Tucson for a visit. He has just come out as gay—actually, he was caught by his wife in bed with a man. With a divorce pending he can offer no financial support for their mother, nor is he willing to leave Tucson to come and share in providing personal care. That city has drawbacks, he says, “There’s only one gay bar, and it’s full of college kids. One of them asked me if I was Tyler Perry.” But he prefers it to Boston—there is none of the family there to call him on his alcohol and drug use.

Later, during a return visit when Agnes has been placed in a home for Alzheimer’s victims, there is a moving scene in which Cliff dances slowly with his mother. But then, what looks like a reconciliation scene turns ugly when Agness, with an unmaternal harshness in her voice, tells him, “I always knew you were queer!” Cut to the quick, Cliff walks out of the room without a word.

Love enters Monk’s life in the person of Coraline (Erika Alexander), a lawyer who lives across the street from his mother. He is especially drawn to her when she tells him that she has read his books and likes them. He does not reveal that he is the author of the brash new book people are talking about. He accepts an invitation to help judge the New England Book Association’s Literary Award. Of course, Sintara Golden also is a member of the panel. To his surprise, he discovers that she shares some of his views. His own F—ck becomes a best seller, and then, to his dismay, his publisher submits his novel to the panel. Worse, all the other members but Sintara love the book. Thus, Monk finds himself arguing against his own work. Added to his worry is the news that the FBI has contacted his publisher about Stagg R. Leigh, believing the story that he is a fugitive from justice.

The third act of the film finds matters very complicated in that the majority on the panel, all white liberals, vote to give his book First Prize. Several alternative endings at the awards ceremony are suggested, one of them reflecting all too well the swift resort to the use of violence when white law enforcement agents confront a Black male.

This is a film that induces us to laugh at the same time that it challenges us (white liberals) to consider the subtleties of racism. As a story of a man struggling to climb out of the box imposed by well-meaning whites, it is unique. It is hard to believe that this is director Cord Jefferson’s first film. He clearly is a filmmaker that I will want to follow. Actor Jeffrey Wright has been extremely busy in film and television since his debut in 1990’s Presumed Innocent. I especially enjoyed him as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Boycott, but have to agree with the other critics who state that he has turned in the best acting of his career. Though this is a satire, he totally convinces us that he is a man who will not give in to the pressure to be something he is not.

This review will be in the March issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.


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