In Cord Jefferson’s idea-dense “American Fiction,” no one wants to publish literary professor Thelonious Ellison’s latest novel. Thelonious — or “Monk” to his friends — has delivered a modern reworking of Aeschylus’ “The Persians” (hardly bestseller material to begin with), but all the industry can see is the color of his skin. The editors compliment his prose, but want to know what this manuscript “has to do with the Black experience.” In frustration, he dashes off a parody of the thug-life trauma porn the world seems to want, submits it to his agent, and suddenly, he’s the “man of the hour.”
If that sounds like the setup for a lit-world “Bamboozled,” then you might be surprised by how even-tempered the film feels. First published in 2001 (the year after Spike Lee’s confrontational satire came out), Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure” had fangs. Jefferson files them down — not necessarily a bad thing, since the accomplished TV writer (who worked as a story editor on “Master of None” and “Watchmen”) sets out to prove that audiences will embrace a more nuanced look at Black identity. His greatest ally in this is no less an actor than Jeffrey Wright, whose understated performance here ranks among his best.
A Ph.D in a family full of M.D.s, Monk is angry most of the time, but it’s the kind of rage that devours a person from within. He’s tired of being put in the proverbial box — of having his experience described as “underrepresented,” when it’s every bit as relatable as your typical Nancy Myers movie (most of the film takes place in and around an East Coast beach house). He’s not raging against the culture at large so much as the commodification of Black voices with in it. Monk doesn’t understand why bookstores insist on filing his novels in the “African American Studies” section, rather than where they belong: under “Fiction.” “The blackest thing about this book is the ink!” exclaims the character whose very name is a mashup between a jazz genius and the writer of “Invisible Man.”
The bestseller du jour, celebrated by white critics with words like “real” and “raw,” is a book called “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), who reads an excerpt in Ebonics, while Monk stands in the back looking exasperated. Later in the film, he finds himself confronting the author directly: “Books like this are not real. They flatten our lives,” he says. Monk isn’t against success; what he’s really fighting against is selling out. That’s why he writes “My Pafology” in the first place, dashing off a satire of everything he hates about “street lit” (the book world equivalent of so-called “urban” movies).
Jefferson gives audiences just a brief taste of this manuscript, imagining a stereotypical conversation between two gangstas, played by Keith David and Okieriete Onaodowan. The scene is only a fraction as funny as it ought to be. Jefferson’s style is too down-to-earth to support the kind of hyperbole it requires (the movie’s simply too polite to go all “Pootie Tang” on us), which means “American Fiction” requires a leap of faith for us to accept that Monk’s tossed-off parody could fool the entire publishing industry. Easier to swallow is the excitement white editors show at the prospect that his pseudonym, Stagg R Leigh, can’t reveal his identity because he’s a wanted fugitive.
“White people think they want the truth,” says Monk’s agent (John Ortiz). “They just want to feel absolved.” Perhaps, but doesn’t the kind of portrayal Monk wants to put out there — a safe, “The Cosby Show” world where race has been erased from the picture — mean the same kind of compromise?
At its core, “American Fiction” is about the unfairness of asking individual artists to represent the entire Black experience. As such, it’s better to read the film as a window into Monk’s white-collar reality, which involves such relatable challenges as losing a sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) and trying to find a nursing home he can afford for his mother (Leslie Uggams). We root for Monk when he meets a nice lawyer named Coraline (Erika Alexander) who knows his work, in which she shows far more interest than he does hers. And we laugh when his hilarious gay brother (a scene-stealing Sterling K. Brown) shows up and reminds of entire dimensions omitted from movies like “New Jack City” and “Juice.”
“American Fiction” is ultimately more generous than Monk is. It doesn’t argue for a world without “Beloved” or “The Color Purple,” or even the novel “Push” by Precious, even giving Sintara a chance to defend her right to write what she (and the public) wants. The movie works best when it’s being a ground-level corrective to the Black depictions Monk most resents, including something called “Plantation Annihilation” by a Quentin Tarantino-like young director (Adam Brody). Strip the character’s identity crisis out of the plot, however, and the portrait lands somewhere between Woody Allen and Tyler Perry.
Jefferson, who shows an instinct for subtlety that will take him far, would only find one of those comparisons a compliment; the other serves as a punchline. As the movie unfolds and Monk sells the rights to his book, Jefferson veers into Charlie Kaufman territory. But as with “Adaptation” (whose conceptual third act doesn’t fool anybody into thinking that Michael Bay took over), the first-time director isn’t quite versatile enough to imitate the studio movies he’s critiquing. Jefferson goes full-meta for the film’s climax, giving audiences a choice of three possible endings. Like the best of the movie’s many references — which range from Flannery O’Connor to Toni Morrison — the helmer trusts his audience to bring themselves to the material. Ultimately, that’s what makes reading “American Fiction” so rewarding.
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