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American Fiction

April 7, 2024
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Flicks with The Film Snob
American Fiction
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A satire about a Black literary novelist who publishes a trashy book under a pseudonym to mock the way African Americans are depicted, only to see the book become a best seller.

American Fiction is, on the surface, a film satire on how African American stories are marketed by the publishing industry. But more than that, it’s about the representation of race in popular culture, and how Black Americans are forced to deal with such misconceptions in their lives. With such a weighty subject, you might not expect the film to be funny, but it is. It’s based on a 2001 novel by Percival Everett called “Erasure,” and first-time director Cord Jefferson has adapted it with only minor changes.

Jeffrey Wright plays Thelonious Ellison, nicknamed “Monk” doubtless because of legendary pianist Thelonious Monk. And the last name, Ellison, is surely meant to invoke the great Black writer Ralph Ellison. Monk is an English professor in Los Angeles, and the author of several works of literary fiction. Monk’s novels are intellectually complex and subtle in style. The critics praise his work, but not many people buy it. Frustrated by this perceived failure, he responds to a comment in class involving race by lashing out. The university makes him take a break to go to Boston for a seminar. Boston is his home town, so it’s a chance to connect with family as well.

At the seminar he attends an interview with a black woman author whose new novel, which has done very well, panders to “ghetto” stereotypes such as poor illiterate unwed mothers and such. This really bothers Monk, who then writes a short novel, in an exaggerated “ebonics” type language, about a black criminal in the ghetto, signs it “Stagg R. Leigh,” and sends it to his agent as a joke. As it turns out, the joke’s on him. The agent, genially played by John Ortiz, asks if he can publish the book under the pseudonym. After some hesitation, Monk agrees. Surprise! A major publishing house offers him a $750,000 dollar advance, and the novel goes on to become a best seller.

This then is the comic premise, from which the film gets a lot of mileage. The absurdity just keeps building, with the white publishing executives depicted as farcical empty-headed culture vultures, and although we know this is an exaggeration, it’s still funny.

Besides all this, however, is the story of Monk’s family, with which he reunites on this trip: his aged mother, played by Leslie Uggams, a supportive sister, and a gay brother who has had issues with Monk in the past. He also meets a potential romantic partner, played by Erika Alexander.

Here I think the film is gently poking some fun at another African American genre: the middle class family drama. But the picture is also meant to be sincere, and Jefferson, the director, makes it work—most of the time. A native of Tucson, he’s had success as a writer on TV, and this is his debut film, so there are bound to be rookie mistakes. But there aren’t many people who win an Oscar for their first film, and Jefferson deservedly won it for his adapted screenplay.

Then there’s Jeffrey Wright. He’s one of our best living actors. Here he ably carries the movie, vividly conveying Monk’s isolation and alienation, which causes him to push people away, but at the same time Wright convinces us of his basic decency.

American Fiction ends with a very clever and funny meta-narrative offering multiple endings. It’s the one major detail that wasn’t in the book, a highly original flash of brilliance from Cord Jefferson.


TAGS
black,   family,   literary,   novels,   popular,   publishing,   satire,  

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