Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is in a rut. He’s still trying to get a publisher to accept his latest book in a market that doesn’t exactly embrace his erudite style. His gig as a college professor lecturing to students that are too “goddamn delicate” to embrace thorny topics of race has him ostracized from colleagues. He’s estranged from family, all of whom are juggling their own issues––health problems, divorce, the financial strain that comes with both. When Monk concocts an elaborate joke to get more fame and acceptance, it’s taken shocking seriously, setting off a series of misadventures exploring how white America is more willing to accept the most reductive, pandering stories of Black trauma versus something that rings holistically authentic. With American Fiction, Cord Jefferson––who has worked on series such as Succession and 2019’s Watchmen––has crafted a directorial debut of biting satire but one that smartly stays grounded in the perspective of Monk’s journey.
In a career of great performances, Jeffrey Wright delivers his best as Monk, gracefully wielding both the self-obsessed anxieties often synonymous with a struggling writer’s life and the scathing frustrations with a marketplace that is looking to cash in with whatever appeals to the largest audience possible. Adapted by Jefferson from Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, the writer-director leaves few targets untouched, from poking fun at Hollywood’s vacuous money-grubbing mindset to the way society celebrates Black voices by highlighting the most reductive representations possible, from slave epics to gangster dramas, to the way absolution-seeking white people are quick to praise these representations as “painfully real, urgent, and raw.” Taking a more comedic approach to rather complex issues, there’s a levity to style aided by Laura Karpman’s peppy score that delightfully catches one off-guard even if there’s the sense that Jefferson is more interested in the punchline than considering a deeper inquiry.
In between the many jokes, Jefferson also layers emotional throughlines in Monk’s relationships. As he heads from California back to native Boston, he’s confronted with his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), whom he’s abandoned as she takes care of their ailing mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams). Meanwhile, his erratic, newly out-of-the-closet plastic-surgeon brother Cliff (a scene-stealing Sterling K. Brown) is picking up the pieces of a divorce and isn’t the most helpful in navigating next steps. Monk also strikes up an unfortunately undercooked relationship with Coraline (Erika Alexander), the family’s neighbor living next to their seaside getaway house. While the movie can occasionally feel at odds between this more sincere slice of family drama and Spike Lee-style comedic castigating of society’s simplification of Black culture, it’s admirable that Jefferson is able to give each side rather equal weight.
It’s best not to spoil precisely how preposterous the situation Monk finds himself in when he looks at Sinatra Golden’s (Issa Rae) bestselling book We’s Lives in Da Ghetto and decides to embark on the most lucrative joke of his life, but it’s equally hilarious and biting how Jefferson takes this journey to its most logical endpoint. Finally receiving the adoration and acclaim he’s so desperately sought, Monk’s interactions with his agent Arthur (John Ortiz) and liberal white publishers on how to navigate this new terrain are the film’s comedic highlights, showing the ways in which personas can be exaggerated to feed the machine of capitalism. Maneuvering the more outlandish humor, the heartache of the family drama, and personal career frustrations, Wright is exemplary, his Monk harboring years of pent-up emotion that is now ready to be unleashed as the actor deftly commands the pitter-patter barrage of Jefferson’s scathing dialogue.
For all its anger at the ways Black experience has been flattened, reduced, and commodified, American Fiction has a fleet-footed touch, distilling complicated systemic issues of race to a comedy that invites both a laugh and conversation. It’s certainly entertaining in the moment, and has proven to already connect with festival audiences, but one wonders if the approach will yield staying power. Nonetheless, for a directorial debut, it’s impressive how Jefferson has crafted a satire this focused, sharp, and palatable.
American Fiction premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and opens on December 15.