“Only good things come with time,” a vicious comeback said by Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) when getting into a heated argument with a fellow professor about how long it takes Monk to write a new novel, opposed to the ‘airport novel’ his colleague writes that requires no real effort. He’s an author who likes to take his time and is struggling to get his new novel published, a modern recreation of Aeschylus’ “The Persians,” because it is both not accessible enough for mass audiences and doesn’t speak to ‘the Black experience’ in America, per his publicist and friend Arthur (John Ortiz). Knowing that this career is at a dead end, Monk starts lashing out, yelling at students in his class for being naïve about the material they are reading and how it affects them, insulting his colleagues based on the quality of their published work. This leads his employer to put him on administrative leave to cool off, and in doing so, is the launching pad for both an emotional, internal discovery as well as down a creative path towards an outlandish new work that plays at the center of Cord Jefferson’s hilarious and perceptive directorial debut.
Based on Percival Everett’s groundbreaking novel “Erasure,” Monk, needing an escape from the California coast, travels across the country to visit his family in Boston. His trip home is less a reunion and more like a last resort, being that for most of his life, he has escaped the troubles of home by living far away and always being someone who likes to march to the beat of their own drum. But when he arrives, he realizes just how out of touch he is, as both his sister Lisa and brother Clifford (played brilliantly by Tracee Ellis Ross and Sterling K. Brown) are each going through a divorce, with Clifford coming out of the closet and starting to live proudly as a gay man. Lisa is in financial trouble and has been the sole sibling taking care of their mother (Leslie Uggams), alongside the help of Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), the family’s longtime housekeeper. Over the course of the film, we see Wright interact and try to reconnect with every member of the family. His work in early scenes with Ellis Ross and later with Brown are truly cathartic, grounded moments of levity surrounding the delicious satire in American Fiction.
The type of drama found in Monk’s life is no different than any American family, which is the point of Everett’s book and Jefferson’s adaptation, as Black families live the same complicated lives as every other race in America. Having a sick mother, struggling with one’s job, losing someone close to you, and finding love like Monk does with the next door neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander), who loves his work but, more importantly, understands him on a deeper level than many of his relationships have in the past. It’s a familiar bond that connects Monk and Coraline, making for effortless chemistry between Wright and Alexander. Heck, as you are watching the film, Monk’s entire soul search home feels like a movie Hollywood would make starring Paul Giamatti and it would win a ton of awards during Oscar season. This wink to the audience is a perfect example of Jefferson’s explosive screenplay, as it shows the clichés found in a story like this can both move audiences and have them buy into characters regardless of wild subplots going on around them, and further proof that movies like this aren’t made enough with Black actors in the lead roles for them to create something special with these characters. It is profound, damning criticism aimed directly at the older, white audience members that are watching his film.
But as Monk is trying to find peace and build relationships with his family and Coraline, he becomes extremely frustrated with the existence of a book called “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae). Playing off of dozens of racial stereotypes, including the use of Ebonics throughout the text’s dialogue, Monk’s angst projects the exact feeling of what a book like that does for authors and readers like him; which is sets them back and feeds right into the hands of white readers, editors, media, society that think the only significant stories that can be told are those where Black people are the lowest common denominator and all nuance and grace is stripped away. It’s the main focus of why Everett made his novel in the first place, as it was an answer to books “Push” by Sapphire and others before it, and with the help of Jefferson’s adaptation, it lives on as not just a criticism of literature, but also of film, as the growing sentiment amongst modern Black journalists and filmgoers over the last few years has been that they are getting tired of seeing Black, African American stories about pain and suffering and not seeing the plethora opportunities to showcase diverse characters and stories that other creatives are given, thus considered ‘important’ in the mainstream.
Taking matters into his own hands, with a bottle of whiskey and an open laptop, Monk crafts his answer to Golden’s book with an even lower hanging fruit, which he titles “My Pafology.” Written as purely a joke and a vessel to blow off steam, his mother’s living room is transformed into a modern ‘urban film’ where the audience watches Monk’s words come together, and for us to see the nature of what this kind of material looks like, rather than just hearing Golden or Monk read it out loud. It is amusing to see how over the top both Keith David (playing a drug peddler named Willy the Wonker) and Okieriete Onaodowan play the scene, even if it is a little too subtle for its own good and doesn’t allow itself to go the full way of something like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, a film that revels in taking us into uncomfortable places where we are questioning our ‘enjoyment’ of the film we are watching.
There is a bit of a wild reality to Jefferson’s film for sure, as Monk’s drunken, joke of an idea turns into a full book deal. He even tries to get the deal killed by changing the title to something so ridiculous that it’s insane that it would even get published. It starts spiraling out of control with a potential movie deal (in a hilarious scene with Adam Brody playing an airhead film director) and the backstory for his pseudonym that he is writing under, where Monk has to pretend he was a drug dealer and went to prison. But with every move he makes, the white people in positions of power eat it up, and the book and its new title are looked upon by the publishers on the phone as a ‘bold statement.’ Jefferson holds nothing back in skewering modern day white liberalism showcased throughout the film, making each white publicist, executive, and artist look absolutely awful in trying to pander to an audience or an experience they don’t even have the first clue in understanding, giving Miriam Shor and Michael Cyril Creighton some of the film’s biggest laugh out loud moments.
When Monk, alongside Ms. Golden, is asked to be on a national book award committee (hired as a sign of diversity because the group had been lacking it for years), his outlandish book is the one that the three white authors can’t stop talking about, even when both Monk and Golden express to the group that they don’t feel right giving an award to that book. “Three versus two” is mentioned by one of the male, politically right leaning writers, proving that in their eyes, and throughout American Fiction, white voices, and culture think they are the only people to decide which stories are important, and who gets to tell those stories to mainstream audiences. By Jefferson pointing this out, he picks apart the basic idea of ‘white allyship’ and forces the audiences to look at themselves and how they talk and act around people of color with their privilege.
Wright, one of our finest actors working today, delivers one of the best performances of his career. He is able to bring just enough sincerity to Monk as he is evolving with his family and also has you laughing a lot at the effort and lengths he will go to get this terrible idea of a book made. In his work as Monk, Wright becomes the perfect vessel to articulate the vision of the original source material and be Jefferson’s ultimate tool in his toolbox to use to allow the ridiculous events in the film to feel real, even if some if not all of what we are watching might not even exist in the first place.
American Fiction is a fascinating, amusing conversation starter led by a lead performance from Jeffrey Wright that is one of the best of the year. Jefferson’s attempt to adapt an unadaptable novel works in most part because of his dedication to keeping the tone and jokes coming quickly enough for us not to notice or think if the topics being discussed have been somewhat examined and answered in the thirty years since the original novel came out. The most important scene in the film lies in a conversation between Monk and Golden towards the end of the film, as they are discussing the purpose of her book verse the unanimous novel Monk has written. While it is a lively debate between the two over the mere existence of their book, the resolution to their conversation is clear and that is that one piece of art can’t represent an entire race of people. In saying this, Cord Jefferson’s debut speaks the honest truth that most debuts don’t dare touch, making American Fiction both hysterical and poignant.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. MGM/Orion will release American Fiction in select theaters on November 3 and wide on November 17.