What is immediately striking about Cord Jefferson's directorial debut, based on Percival Everett’s 2001 award-winning novel Erasure, is how it balances the two different movies that it is and how these two movies work together to re-enforce the overall point of the film rather than competing against one another for more prominence or importance. The truth is, both could exist on their own and still be engaging, but the ways in which they lean on and feed in and out of one another elevate the heart and intelligence of both. From one angle, American Fiction is a burning satire, a total takedown of every stereotype the entertainment industry and by association, our culture at large, has ascribed to the African American individual and experience. From the opposite angle, Jefferson's film tells the story of a Black family in America that upends every single one of those stereotypes; painting not a perfect picture of a family to prove a point, but rather what is still a flawed yet funny and successful yet sad portrait of a life not typically seen embodied by people with pigment. 

Whether you see American Fiction as a conventional story told unconventionally or vice versa will depend on what walk of life you're approaching the film from, but the point is that by the time the credits roll the interpretation of the film's melding objectives are all on the same page. Jeffrey Wright's Thelonious 'Monk' Ellison is a writer who faces the challenge all introverted writers do in that he purports to understand and possess insight around the human condition without having spent any actual time in the wild, among people outside his academic circles in some time. Monk is distrusting of the individual student or person he encounters who does not think on the same wavelength as he while optimistic to the point he believes those same people that make up a culture of book readers will appreciate his high-brow literature enough to allow him to make a living off it. As a white male, this idea of knowing the truth deep down but still masking it in hopes that everything will be okay in the grander scheme of things leads to an interesting facet of the film, at least to viewers who look/think like me. It would seem there is a collective/unspoken desire for things to remain uninterrupted in the ways of the world even if we outwardly express a desire for truth and innovation; in other words, progress is fine as long as it is guided by the same kind of structure we’ve always adhered to. I’m not saying I agree with this, but I am saying I recognize the truth of the statement as suggested in the film. Of course, change is scary for most, but this is how American Fiction challenges a viewer of my persuasion as it asks the question, “what has shaped my perspective of black individuals and culture?” Do I take what I have been fed at face value or do I know my own truth via the work I have put into growing real relationships?

Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright form something of a natural, but surprising bond at an unexpected time in both of their lives. 
© Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Monk likes to think he understands people well enough to know how to lie to them convincingly – or at least avoid them in the case of his family, but through his actions under the pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh he comes to realize he doesn't have to try and convince people of anything as they are more than happy to buy whatever bullshit he comes up with and more, treat it as exceptional simply because it reflects badly on them if they don’t and therefore their endorsement of such absolves them from the sins of their ancestors. We don't want to be lied to, not really, but we'll sit in it forever if it's a comfier chair. The way in which Jefferson exposes this ugly truth through the power and prominence a reductive, flat picture of black people's lives in America gains versus the kind of inherent rejection of the idea a black person’s life can be hard for reasons outside of gangs, drugs, single parenting, and/or slave trauma is both an indictment of the systems that set-up the linking of fear and criminals with race as well as asking the audience why it was set-up that way in the first place? To who’s ultimate benefit, is it? 

In a scene featuring Monk and his literary agent (John Ortiz) discussing the release strategy of his joke of a book via conference call, Monk tests just how far he can push the publishers (with what is one of the funniest line deliveries of the year, I might add) before they attempt to exert some kind of restraint or power over him. He’s more looking for someone to call him out on the bullshit he believes he’s pedaling, but once the lightbulb of realization goes off that what is so terrifying to these white people he’s speaking with is not the change or progress that they once feared (at least not these kind of white people), but more as being seen as gatekeepers for such things is when Monk realizes the extent of the power he has because he is now perceived as a man owed something rather than simply being deserving of it. Power is the root of all racial conflict and tension since the beginning of slavery after all, so while this probably pisses Monk off further, he doesn’t have any real interest in flexing his own muscle for the sake of it. Rather, this scene and the provocation of this idea that an inherent hierarchy still exists despite how far we’ve come only for that hierarchy to now almost exclusively push a specific kind of black story and the ramifications of as much are key to understanding the root of the many ideas at the center of American Fiction

Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Uggams star in Cord Jefferson's American Fiction.
© Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

In another scene, earlier in the film, where Monk begins writing his derivative, shallow parody of a “black” book we see iterations of his characters appear in front of Monk’s desk (including Keith David!) as they act out what is being typed on Monk’s laptop – revisions and all. It’s a fun piece of filmmaking flair that unfortunately the rest of the film is lacking. This being Jefferson’s debut feature it’s easy to understand why the clarity with which the big ideas are expressed is of the utmost importance justifying why he doesn’t push things too much in terms of execution, but a little more energy to try and match the vigor of the sharpness through which the ideas are written would seem to only elevate them further. Still, beyond the big topics and biting satire there is plenty to enjoy here from both an aesthetic and entertainment perspective. Seeing Wright in this mode couldn’t feel like a better pairing of actor and role. Erika Alexander as Monk’s new love interest gives the film a spark outside all of its heady conversations while Sterling K. Brown absolutely crushes every time he enters the frame. The score by Laura Karpman plays nicely into both the personal narrative as well as the more comedic moments of the script while the tranquil setting of Monk’s family’s beach house, the many conversations on the porch, and the investment in so many of these characters that transcend the genre only work in Jefferson’s favor to prove that people are oftentimes much more than the stereotype they’ve been reduced to. That said, it is rather upsetting they landed on “Philip” as what is apparently the douchiest white guy name they could come up; I’ll try not to take it personally though.

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