American Fiction (2023)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on December 14, 2023 @

Irony is alive!

American Fiction brings it back with wit and style.

Novice director Cord Jefferson has adapted a book by Percival Everett into a film that is satiric, meaningful - and ironic.

American Fiction is the story of Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), an educated black man who faces his demons and a literary world that cheapens black experience. He is frustrated and angry when Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), a black writer, becomes popular after she writes a book titled We's Lives in Da Ghetto. What sells is ghetto life - not ideas.

Monk is a published writer and teaches a university course on the tradition of the American south. In the film's opening he's teaching a story by Flannery O'Conner, not a black writer. A female student walks out, because she is offended by the language. She has green hair, so is an example of fads and trends. One trend is white "sensitivity" to racism. Biases resound and change.

After a trip to Boston and his family's beach house, Monk writes a book that will teach the publishers a lesson. They will get the mockery and he'll make his point. There is no way anybody will publish such obvious nonsense. But of course they buy the book and accept the invented writer, whom Monk under a pen name has created. He pretends to be a thuggish man escaping arrest. The more he is celebrated, the more absurdly he stretches his image. He never meets the publishers in person. But they are smitten by his salable image.

On the home front, Monk's family is dysfunctional. His father is dead, his mother (Leslie Uggams) has Alzheimer's, and his brother (Sterling K. Brown) - based in California - has recently come out as gay. All of them were negatively affected by his father, who was distant and demanding. Monk carries psychological baggage, which keeps him at a distance in relationships.

The direction by Cord Jefferson is firm and creative. A veteran writer for tv (Succession), Jefferson is directing his initial feature. His screenplay is clever.

But what holds the film together most is the layered performance by Jeffrey Wright (who played Gordon in The Batman). He can be strong and uncertain at the same time.

The penultimate scene before the end may be jarring and seem overdone. But upon consideration, we should agree with a filmmaker (Adam Brody) in the film that it's "perfect."

It's a mixture of absurdity and actuality.

It's perfect irony.

© 2000-2023 Tony Macklin