James Carlstrand reviews Cord Jefferson’s Oscar-nominated satirical feature, American Fiction, measuring up its playful attack at the flawed publishing industry.

Spoiler Alert : American Fiction’s ending is alluded to in this review.

American Fiction marks the feature-film debut of writer/director Cord Jefferson (previous television credits include Watchmen and Station Eleven) – a whip-smart, funny and heart-warming picture, but one which could use a little more bite.

Adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, the film follows the equally exquisitely named Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), who friends and family call Monk, an academic and writer whose stalled career and lack of mainstream success have left him embittered and disillusioned with the literary world. The bulk of Monk’s ire is targeted at what he deems the ghettoisation of black writers and stories which reduce black people to tales of tragedy and criminality, whilst pandering to the tastes and guilt complexes of middle-class white people. This to him is best is signified in Sintara Golden’s (Issa Rae) new best-seller We’s Lives in Da Ghetto which is written with disjointed and broken language à la Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. However, when Monk writes his own book mocking this style entitled ‘My Pafology’, under the pseudonym Stag R. Lee, it proves a smash hit and becomes the most lucrative and beloved novel of his career. This kickstarts an ever-spiralling chain of events which see Monk navigating increasingly excruciating, obsequious, and ill-informed literary and film executives – to anyone questioning these depictions just remember that a Hollywood executive genuinely once suggested Julia Roberts portray abolitionist and escaped slave Harriet Tubman.

The film proves a continually thoughtful and genuinely funny foray into the complex topics of racial identity and the halls of America’s cultural industries. Despite dealing with intellectually heavy subject matter the film never feels polemical, and never loses the steam required to stay a thoroughly enjoyable romp. In some ways we sense a frolicking, more digestible rendition of the ideas expressed in Frantz Fanon’s landmark text Black Skin, White Masks (1952), although I am unsure whether this was an actual influence on either the book or film ; it showcases how parochial outlooks, even amongst those who consider themselves progressive, continue to propagate narrow-minded attitudes towards race and what black culture ‘should’ look like.

American Fiction, on the other hand, never feels scathing or excoriating in its exploration of these themes and even as it shoots out barbs in all directions no group is ever shut out of the conversation. Beyond its intellectual ideas Jefferson and his actors also imbue the film with a true heart as some of its strongest moments are found in the dynamic of Monk’s family. Tracey Ellis Ross and Stirling K Brown who play Monk’s siblings Lisa and Clifford do, if you’ll indulge the pun, a sterling job establishing truly tactile and three-dimensional relationships with Wright. They embody the many contradictions found in siblinghood which can be both important and infuriating, intimate yet alienating. Likewise Leslie Uggams, Monk’s Alzheimers-suffering mother, and Myra Lucretia Taylor, Ellison’s long-time family housekeeper, alongside Erika Alexander, Monk’s newfound girlfriend Coraline, all offer beautiful and witty supporting performances.

Nonetheless, the does begin to meander as Jefferson, along with Monk, seems to lose the strength of some of his convictions. The ending itself feels a little cheated with its meta plot device where Monk offers us several (though none satisfying) different possible conclusions, whose weak and washy nature do not correspond to the incredibly forthright thinker so brilliantly depicted up until this point. This could all be defended, as Monk defends it himself, as an attempt to avoid being too didactic, but I believe such an aim can be achieved without sacrificing the film’s own central thesis, just as Jefferson does during a late-on confrontation between Monk and Sintara. This scene, a cinematic invention absent from the original novel, is by far American Fiction’s most powerful and engaging moment. Monk is given a fabulously thorough dressing-down by Sintara who forcefully challenges his righteous proclamations. A real meeting of minds, both Wright and Rae deliver their lines with impact and impetus without ever resorting to grandstanding. Crucially, both their viewpoints are allowed time, space, and thought without ever encouraging, or even suggesting it necessary, that the audience pick a side. It is this scene that proves the film can avoid being didactic without sacrificing its critical thinking, as the ending sadly does. However, my reservations surrounding American Fiction’s final few minutes do not diminish an overall admiration for the film, as Jefferson and company have managed to craft a watchable, intelligent, and comedic commentary on American culture which approaches large ideas in an easily engaging manner.

It is a film I highly recommend you watch and ruminate on but please don’t act like one of its sycophantic white people and call it important.

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