American Fiction Gives Jeffrey Wright His Well Deserved Moment in the Spotlight

Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction is an adaptation of Erasure a postmodern literary satire written in 2001 by Percival Everett. Over twenty years later and the issues Everett raised about the commodification of African American stories as experiences that flatten and stereotype Black people have not gone away – in point of fact with the popularity of “authentic” and “raw” cinema, the complex problem has become more muddled. Jefferson’s film and screenplay does condemn Black stories for white consumption, but it also acknowledges that some of those stories are true but often boiled down to recognisable cliches which exist not to empower the community they come. Jefferson also turns his lens on a variety of African American people and their varying experiences while posing questions of hypocrisy coming from a variety of sources.

Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is an author teaching literature in California. The opening scene establishes how tired he is of people being offended on his behalf. Writing on the board the title of a Flannery O’Connor story, a young white student objects to having to see a certain word. “With all due respect Brittany. I got over it so can you,” Monk sighs. Brittany continues to argue, and Monk’s face moves into a scowl. Cut to Brittany crying as she leaves the classroom and Monk being called into a faculty meeting and being quietly put on “break” by the college and told to stay in Boston for a while where he will be attending a writer’s conference. Monk sighs that he hates Boston because that’s where his family is.

Monk is a respected published author but his latest book a reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians is not getting picked up by anyone. The problem it seems is that the publishing houses think the book isn’t Black enough. By Black they mean “Doesn’t reflect the African American experience.” Monk wearily tells his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz) “They want a black book. I’m black and it’s a book.” He further tells Arthur that he “Doesn’t even believe in race” just as a Boston taxi he waves down passes him for a white passenger. Monk might not believe in race, but Monk is more than a little disconnected from the world.

Monk’s woefully attended panel on Myths and fiction is up against the literary world’s rising star. Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) has written a NYT bestseller called We Lives in Da Ghetto. After attending a prestigious and private liberal arts college Golden started working at a NY publishing company where she found that most of the stories being pushed for printing were by white men. She decided it was time people heard the stories of her people. As she reads a passage from, We Lives in Da Ghetto, Monk’s face turns into blank confusion. The woman in front of him is not telling anything that could feasibly represent her personal story.

The last thing Monk would want to do is write from his personal experience (although ironically it does happen). Long ago he abandoned his upper middle-class Boston family. His father (who committed suicide) was a doctor and a precise taskmaster who cared for few but himself. Monk was his favourite child. His recently divorced sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) perhaps the most forgiving of his family works in a family planning clinic. His youngest brother, Clifford (Sterling K. Brown) has lost his family when his wife walked in on him in bed with a man. Like Monk, Clifford left the family as soon as he could. Unlike Monk, he maintained a relationship with Lisa.

The family matriarch, Agnes Ellison (Leslie Uggams) is imperious but fading. Lisa has been in charge of her care along with Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor) the family maid from Arkansas who still calls everyone Mister and Miss. Despite what Monk would like to believe about race not existing, class most certainly does.

After another family tragedy reunites Clifford and Monk the unease between them is palpable. Clifford has no reason to like “Detective Dictionary,” who reminds him too much of their father. Monk has to deal with the possibility that now he is a part of the “family melodrama” he so long sought to escape. In their picturesque (and soon to be sold) beach house Monk becomes the default carer for his mother. He meets Coraline (Erika Alexander) a spectacular and intelligent defence attorney. In a fit of pique after seeing the multiple reductive African American stories in books and on screen, he writes what he presumes to be an obvious satire – My Pafology under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh (a joke in itself referring to the 1958 song by Lloyd Price).

Sending it to Arthur his publisher who is shocked by it, Monk insists that he rubs the noses of the establishment in the book by sending it out. Neither of them expects that the book will not only be accepted by publishing house Thompson Watt under the auspices of Paula Betason (Miriam Shor), but she will be offering a huge advance. Monk under financial stress eventually agrees to sell them the book but remains outraged that the literary establishment would want a story which is essentially an episode of The Wire. Apparently for white people to hear Black people they have to be talking about rap, crack, poverty, and crime. It helps that Arthur tells Paula that Stagg is a wanted fugitive.

American Fiction is spot on satire, right down the Hollywood director Wiley Valdespino (Adam Brody) who makes “genre films with real world pathos.” His latest is called Plantation Annihilation where the ghosts of slaves murder a white couple and their wedding party. “Ryan Reynolds gets decapitated with an afro pick,” says Wiley. Wiley who knows Stagg is the real deal because he did a spell in prison himself for some white-collar crime and it “changed him.” Wiley who calls Stag brother and apologises for the restaurant being too bougie. Wiley who later berates an assistant for bringing him a can of cold drink which is wet.

The satire deepens when a traditionally very white literary prize known as ‘The Literary Award’ reaches out to Monk as a judge because they have a “perceived” diversity issue. Another judge is Sintara Golden, another a “white woke” author Ailene Hoover (Jenn Harris), a very not “woke” author Jon Daniel Sigarsmen (Bates Wilder) and a fairly typical literary circle writer Wilson Harnet (Neal Lerener). Monk finds himself more often than not agreeing with Sintara. One thing they definitely agree on is when My Pafology now titled Fuck, and now a NYT bestseller is entered into The Literary Award it should not win.

Balanced against the satire is Monk’s personal realisations. As much as he’s seen himself as apart from everyone it has been a defence mechanism. Clifford is really going through some shit after having recently come out and now living life on ten-speed. Clifford bonds with Coraline and a small crack of brotherly recognition opens between Cliff and Monk. But Monk being Monk, resentful of his success as Stagg and contributing to “making people stupider,” begins to take his frustrations out on Coraline – especially as he finds her reading a copy of Fuck.

American Fiction serves several purposes. First it is a biting comedy and condemnation of stereotypes. It is then a study of a broken family who although seemingly avoiding stereotypes still manage to perpetuate them (Agnes refuses to acknowledge that Cliff is a “queer”). Even the stereotypes the family has avoided by being all professionals they have passed on. Monk has lived so long in his lonely ivory tower he’s forgotten how to be present for anyone. Ironically playing the part of what he deems his complete opposite makes him more successful than he can imagine financially but deepens his own lack of faith in himself as a writer. “People want to love you, Monk” says Clifford after Monk reveals he’s messed up his relationship with Coraline. “You should let them love the whole you.” The question Monk can’t answer is who the whole or even a part of him really is.

Inevitably Fuck is chosen by the voting group despite Monk and Sintara’s objections – “I think it’s really important we listen to Black Voices,” says Ailene while ignoring the two Black people in the room. Monk learns a couple of lessons of his own from Sintara who tells him it isn’t wrong to write to what the market wants if you actually do research and write well. Monk says it means that White people only see a limited version of the African American experience, and not their potential. Sintara retorts, “Potential is what people see when they think what’s in front of them isn’t good enough.”

There isn’t a single cast member who isn’t giving an excellent performance. Audiences have long known Jeffrey Wright as one of American’s pre-eminent acting talents. Stirling K. Brown does extraordinary work as Cliff, a man broken by many years of living up to expectations enforced on him by his family and finally being set free and finding himself somewhat adrift. Leslie Uggams, Erika Alexander, John Ortiz, Issa Rae, and Adam Brody give fine supporting performances; but it is Myra Lucretia Taylor as Lorraine and Ray Anthony Thomas as her old and new beau Maynard who ground the film with love.

American Fiction is far from an easy work even when operating as satire. There are so many blink and you’ll miss them moments – such as the films chosen for African American week on some cable channel (Boyz in Da Hood, Get Rich or Die Trying, New Jack City, Precious,* Baby Boy and the could have been directed by Wiley Antebellum). The way the white people correct themselves around Stagg in a manner they’d never bother with for someone not a potential cash-cow. The faux sympathy mixed with cultural absolution that comes from doing nothing but being seen with a book, movie, or record in your hand by white people. Excellence is not as important as what they perceive to be “raw” and “authentic.” It’s also about a man who really has no authenticity until he faces the reality that he’s been too long away from experiencing any kind of life.

Once Monk opens himself up to the possibility that people are many things – sometimes a cheap bottle of Jonnie Walker, sometimes Jonnie Walker Blue, sometimes they just need to be a mixture of both or maybe they don’t need to be consumed at all. American Fiction is a brilliant and incisive debut that avoids simple messaging even when it is not being subtle. If ever Jeffrey Wright deserved his moment in the spotlight – and he’s deserved it for years – American Fiction ensures he shines.

*Precious or Push a novel by Sapphire is one of the books which inspired Percival Everett to write Erasure. For extra context the surname Ellison is taken from Ralph Ellison the first famous Black American writer to push back against the assumption that African American stories had to be of woe and hardship. He particularly cited Richard Wright’s Native Son. Everett’s version of My Pafology was a modern version of Native Son.

Director: Cord Jefferson

Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown

Writer: Cord Jefferson, (based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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