By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
There’s a scene in American Fiction that conveys a thoughtful message and surrounds it with a number of genuine laughs in a way that perfectly captures the intelligence and tone of Cord Jefferson’s feature directorial debut. Frustrated author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (played by Jeffrey Wright) visits a bookstore and struggles to find his novels in readily available sections of the store. It isn’t until Monk goes to a more remote part of the bookstore and finds a shelf reserved for African-American books and studies that he finally identifies his books. Monk proceeds to argue with the bookstore worker, insisting that his books aren’t ‘Black’ books – they’re just books. And, as such, they shouldn’t be placed in a section meant for African-American literature. Dissatisfied with the entire situation, Monk takes the books and places them in a more fitting category, despite the bookstore employee saying he’ll just relocate the books once Monk leaves. A tight, masterfully crafted, intellectually interesting and humorous scene that captures the brilliance of American Fiction in a nutshell.
Cord Jefferson, whose accomplishments in TV include Succession and Watchmen, wrote and directed American Fiction, which is based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett. Jefferson’s film follows Jeffrey Wright’s Monk, a Black author who struggles to have his books published because they are not stereotypically ‘Black’ enough. Annoyed with the state of things, Monk mockingly writes a ridiculously stereotypical ‘Black’ book and becomes surprised when the book not only gets published, but receives universal acclaim.
American Fiction is an intelligent exploration of a host of relevant themes. At its core, it’s a film about selling out, betraying one’s convictions in favor of reward. But it’s also deeply embedded with racial commentary that quashes the notion of such a thing as a ‘Black’ book. This feeds into authentic family dynamics, sudden loss, bereavement, and cognitive decline. Needless to say, writer/director Jefferson has his hands full with themes, plot points, and commentary in American Fiction and yet somehow manages to craft one of the year’s greatest films.
In a vein similar to Jordan Peele’s Us, American Fiction deconstructs what it means to be ‘Black.’ In the film, Jeffrey Wright’s character has a Ph.D., teaches at a university, and is an author. His family are full of medical doctors, including his sister Lisa (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) and brother Cliff (played by Sterling K. Brown). The Ellison family in the film are able to afford a well-managed nursing home to care for their mother as she struggles with cognitive decline. Higher education and financial stability define the family AND they are Black. In other terms, there is nothing mutually exclusive about the relationship between Black and having higher education, or financial stability. This harkens back to a quote from director Jordan Peele about his film Us. “It starts with a Black family on vacation,” Peele said. “They go to the beach, dad buys a boat. Then things start getting creepy.” Peele, like Jefferson in American Fiction, sends a message that it can be completely normal to be Black and be successful. to be successful. A testament to the film’s thematic complexities related to race, this normalization of Black success is just one of a variety of racial themes and commentaries covered by Jefferson.
Complementing its exploration of race are American Fiction’s portrayal of family dynamics. Monk has a brother, a sister, a mother, and his mother’s caregiver, who comprise the Ellison family. Through a number of casual scenes throughout, Jefferson brings an authenticity to his portrayal of family dynamics that feels relatable and vibrant. The best of these scenes come from Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown’s argumentative siblings butting heads. And, related to the family dynamics, is an exploration of grief, mental health, suicide, and cognitive impairment. Each and every side of the family that Jefferson portrays is so interesting and packs such rich commentary.
But, beyond the complexity or richness of its themes, it must be said that American Fiction is an unreservedly hilarious film. The premise of Monk jokingly writing a stereotypically Black book and then essentially continuing with the joke / lie continues to unfold across the film and leads to so many hilarious moments. Jeffrey Wright is at the helm of most of these moments, delivering a performance that reaches both emotional and humorous heights.
American Fiction is one of the year’s best films. Deftly exploring race, family dynamics, grief, and more in a thematically complex film, writer/director Cord Jefferson adapts Percival Everett’s Erasure novel about a struggling Black author who finds unexpected success when he writes a stereotypically Black novel. Intelligent and philosophically rich, but also unreservedly hilarious, American Fiction is the rare film that will make you think deeply and laugh wholeheartedly.