An alternate version of this review appeared on the blog during my coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2023
Directed by Cord Jefferson | Written by Jefferson from the book Erasure by Percival Everett | 117 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | In Cinemas
American Fiction is a warm-hearted satire, which I’d generally say is a contradiction in terms but here it works. It balances a bite in its observations of the publishing industry with a heartfelt drama about an African-American family. It’s also consistently hilarious, a genuine pleasure throughout.
Jeffery Wright is Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a writer and educator who hasn’t published in awhile, much to the chagrin of his agent (John Ortiz). Monk is pissed off at the kind of African-American stories that are celebrated — the violence, the rappers, the misery, and the slavery — like in the books the glamorous Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) writes.
His terminal grumpiness earns him “a break” from his university job in California, so he heads back east to Boston where his family lives to attend a literary festival and see his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), and beloved housekeeper, Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor).
His mother’s been struck by dementia and he’s got other family issues, like an estranged brother, Cliff (Sterling K Brown, terrific), who’s just come out as gay and is doing a whole lot of coke. Just then he meets a possible romantic prospect, Coraline (Erika Alexander).
In a fit of pique he writes something that indulges in all the cliches he sees in Golden’s book, and to his surprise and dismay when he sends the book to his agent this new project becomes a hot property. He wouldn’t care but he can’t ignore the money given his mother’s needs.
The media satire is the high point of all of this, Monk’s struggle to control the beast he’s unleashed and his pain in compromising his values, particularly the picture’s vicious take on drooling, white publishers looking to land the next hot Black book to feed the market, and the culture of lit festivals and juries keen on token diversity.
Some of the family stuff here is maybe a little conventional in comparison, but that’s where the heart is — and, it occurs to me, I can’t recall the last time I saw an American movie featuring a Black man coming out as gay that wasn’t Moonlight. Besides, the performers are all so winning by the end you’re entirely on board. Full marks especially to Wright, whose Monk is entirely sympathetic but also plausibly prickly enough to drive people who love him away, while struggling with his self-loathing and identity.
Since American Fiction‘s appearance at TIFF and it winning the Audience Award, my fellow columnist on CBC Radio and Toronto critic, Rad Simonpillai, has reviewed it positively but suggested that the film’s key flaw is it fails to truly implicate the white audience that loves it. That’s a point worth considering.
When Cord Jefferson spoke at the TIFF screening he said his intent was never to critique the Black artists who’ve gone in this direction, to offer art that stereotypes their culture. Rather he wants to shine a spotlight on the system that props them up and makes their work so popular — why do people want it? Especially white people? That’s a question worth asking.