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American Fiction (2023)

When a black professor writes the title of a book on the white board of his university classroom that includes the most despicable racial epithet for black people (you guessed it, the N-word), one white female student objects to the term, asserting her own feelings of harm above those of the black professor and the other students. That the word was a part of the original title and was presumably a part of what the professor was about to critique did not seem to matter; her intervention was about her personal trauma. So begins the cascading downward spiral of Prof. Thelonious Ellison (affectionately known as Monk after the jazz great Thelonious Monk) played with cool intelligence, emotional sensitivity, and pervasive frustration by the brilliant Jeffrey Wright.

Directed by Cord Jefferson and written by Jefferson and Percival Everett, American Fiction (Oscar-nominated for best picture in 2024) is a fresh, funny, insightful film that delivers a timely critique of the damage wrought by white dominance in academia, publishing, and film, as well as the tender and emotionally-stunted interactions within familial and romantic relationships, and many laugh-out-loud moments of comedic brilliance. Wright has been delivering a diverse array of exceptional and finely tuned performances for years, including his stunning portrayal of the real life, twentieth-century painter Jean Michel Basquiat in 1996 (for which we humbly submit Wright should have been, at the least, nominated for an Oscar). Wright was deservingly nominated in the best actor category for this role and the film won best screenplay (upsetting Oppenheimer and Barbie) at the 2024 Oscars.

After his run-in with the white student, Wright’s Monk is “invited” by his white faculty colleagues to take a leave of absence from his tenured faculty job at the university. This exchange and one with his Puerto Rican American literary agent Arthur, played with comedic exasperation and subtle self-interest by John Ortiz, reveals that Monk’s literary career is in somewhat of a slump. In a skillful metaphor using three bottles of Johnnie Walker whisky laid out from cheapest and least refined to most expensive and coveted, Arthurs explains to Monk that while his books are of course the top shelf, they are clearly not as accessible as the cheapest and most popular bottle.

The issues of money, book contracts, and sales are not merely about Monk’s ability to sustain himself, but his extended family too; one that is thrown into crisis with the death of his exuberant and loving sister, Lisa Ellison, played by the talented Tracee Ellis Ross. Lisa’s death forces Monk and his surviving brother Cliff Ellison (played with a sense of self-loathing and despair by the Oscar-nominated Sterling K. Brown) to come together to mourn their sister and to decide how to take care of an aging mother, Agnes Ellison (played by Leslie Uggams) who is rapidly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Decisions must be made about the matriarch’s care and funds must be found to see her moved into an appropriate elder care facility. These things that the recently departed Lisa used to do, now fall to Monk and Cliff whose relationship, although loving, is clearly distant, strained, and dysfunctional. For one thing, Monk seems shocked to learn that the cause of breakdown in Cliff’s marriage was his homosexuality, or as Cliff bluntly put it, being caught in bed with another man by his wife. Indeed, Monk seems to have cultivated a distance from all his family members, not just Cliff.

American Fiction is a sweet and touching drama with a comedic heart and much of the humour comes from the ways in which Monk, Lisa, and Cliff interact or avoid emotionally-authentic and truthful interactions based upon their assigned childhood roles in the family and the traumas they are individually suffering (Lisa is in the middle of a separation, Cliff a divorce, and Monk clearly struggles with being vulnerable enough to sustain any adult romantic relationships). They are all also still clearly suffering from the trauma of their father’s suicide, a man who we only come to know through their recollections of what sounds like a self-absorbed philanderer who spent much of his marriage sneaking out of town and cheating on his wife. The other paternal legacy with which the three children must struggle is their father’s profound intellect and aloofness, an emotional state that all agree now plagues Monk.

But the film is also called American Fiction because it takes us inside the world of publishing, a world where clients/authors like Monk are hoping to net six or seven figure advances and, even better, movie deals from Hollywood studios. The problem for writers like Monk and agents like Arthur is how the stark whiteness of these intersecting institutions impose their ideas of blackness upon black authors, forcing them to adhere to often stereotypical literary parametres in context, character, and theme that align with white desires, tastes, and audiences. This is the conundrum in which Monk finds himself as Arthur announces that his manuscript has been rejected yet again by another press (hence the Johnnie Walker metaphor), because the presses want a “black book”. That Monk is a black author of the manuscript is not the point; the content is clearly not “black” enough for the white presses. To complicate matters further, Monk is a black man who by his own admission “does not believe in race,” even as he is reminded of its existence when a taxi drives by him on a brightly lit street in the daytime, only to stop a few feet away for a white male passenger.

Monk, in Arthur’s opinion, must appeal to the mainstream audience (coded in the literary world as white) by creating a work of black popular fiction. The problem for Monk is that he associates the “black popular” with authors like Sintara Golden (played by Issa Rae) who he sees as pandering to white audiences with books like We’s Lives in de Ghetto which are rife with stereotypes of blackness as violence, broken homes, and broken lives. Until then, Monk has refused to participate in creating what he calls “black trauma porn” to “feed (white) people’s base desires.”

Do you recall how Spike Lee’s brilliant and provocative satire Bamboozled (2000) featured the exasperated black TV executives Pierre Delacroix and Sloan Hopkins (played by the accomplished Damon Wayans and Jada Pinkett-Smith respectively), who sought to teach their white TV studio boss Dunwitty (played by Michael Rapaport) a lesson by pitching the most racist TV show idea possible (a blackface minstrelsy sketch comedy)? Well, in the same tradition, Monk decides to write a popular black book with “rappers, deadbeat dads, and crack” to prove a point about the vacuous racism of the white publishing industry. To disguise his identity as the author, Monk also creates a fittingly stereotypical alter-ego, Stagg R. Leigh, a black man with a criminal past and a history of imprisonment who is on the run from the police. However, startling (for Monk), when he is invited back to Arthur’s office it is to hear the news that a publisher has offered him (or is it Stagg?) a $750,000.00 advance to publish the book which the overly enthusiastic white female executive Paula Baderman (played by Miriam Shor) confidently predicts will become the “read of the summer”. What’s more, that offer is soon sweetened as another white executive (this time of film), Wiley Valdespino (played by Adam Brody), swoops in to offer Monk $4 million for the film rights. Come again? The hilarity ensues when the straightlaced, highly educated, erudite Monk, pretends to be Stagg when on the phone with the publishing execs and in a face-to-face meeting with Wiley. Monk’s change of vocal tone, vocabulary, mannerisms, and attitude gesture to his understanding of all the ways that his “normal state” would fail to be recognized (by white people, of course) as authentically black.

Despite being the solution to his and his family’s financial woes, the circumstance which lead to Monk’s windfall leave him angry and disillusioned to the point where he actively seeks to sabotage his lucrative book deal. How? Rather hilariously actually, by insisting that the name of his book be changed from My Pafology (strategically misspelled to highlight the supposed ignorance of black folks) to Fuck! This time with two white publishing execs on the call with him (as Stagg) and Arthur, Monk tries to derail his contract. But while attempting to charm Monk with their black pop cultural knowledge, the publishing duo (Paula and John Bosco, played as an exuberant white gay man by Michael Cyril Creighton), stumble hilariously through a succession of black stereotypes while trying to entice Monk with the possibility of a doo rag wearing Michael B. Jordan on the book’s cover and as the lead in the film. In the end, they attempt to suppress any hint of their reluctance and agree to the title change, to Monk’s profound chagrin.

American Fiction also offers explorations of two romantic relationships with Monk eventually pursuing the new neighbour Coraline (played by Erika Alexander of TV, Living Single, and movie fame, Get Out ) who has moved in across the street from the family’s Massachusetts beachfront home. But his haughty arrogance and inability to open up threatens to derail his newfound relationship. Indeed, Monk reacts with anger and disdain when he discovers a copy of Fuck in Coraline’s house, a gift she confesses, from a friend. The second relationship is that of the Ellison family’s faithful black housekeeper, the tender-hearted Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), who, after an unplanned reunion, falls for the local black police officer Maynard (Raymond Anthony Thomas). Maynard’s proposal leads to a beautiful informal wedding at the family beach house where Lorraine’s open-heartedness towards Cliff and his gay male “friends” sets an example for Monk of another way to relate to his brother.

The final scenario that threatens to disclose Monk’s lies is his acceptance of a role as juror for a literary prize. Monk is shocked and mortified to learn that Fuck is one of the nominated books that he must review and rate, a predicament that leaves him unable to disclose his role as its author. While he and Rae’s Sintara decry the book’s failures, they are woefully outvoted by the three other white judges who hail the audacity and authenticity of the fictitious Stagg’s book as worthy of the top honour.

In the end, we are left to see if Monk will take to the stage to accept the literary award for the book that he penned as Stagg. The film also concludes with a conversation between Monk and Wiley about three possible endings for Monk’s book-turned-film, and let’s just say it’s not a revelation to see which scenario Wiley chooses. Indeed, as Monk exits the sound stage, a studio worker glides by with a huge scenic backdrop of a plantation Big House as a black actor sits on a bench in period dress, representing an enslaved person. Message received!