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American Fiction

***1/2

by Matt Anderson

published December 2, 2023

See American Fiction and then appreciate this statement: It’s essential viewing.

White Negroes

American Fiction marks a stunning directorial debut from Cord Jefferson, who also wrote the screenplay based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. It takes and upends the cultural norms and expectations of Black storytelling and chips away at the very essence of what it even means to tell a “Black story.”

American Fiction is all about words, writing and storytelling. That’s Jefferson’s sweet spot; a couple key career highlights include the 2019 revisionist Watchmen series and frequent contributions to The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.

The lead character is Thelonious Ellison, wonderfully portrayed by Jeffrey Wright (The Batman). Rather unfortunately — at a book convention of all things — his tabletop nameplate is misspelled. Friends and relatives call him Monk, no doubt a nod to the jazz musician, but it’s also certainly easier to spell.

While his books are thoughtful and well-written, they don’t sell. So, Monk pays the bills teaching college-level writing courses.

And Monk is opinionated. Many would call him divisive and controversial.

Others, though, such as the guy putting these words together, see him as a hero while he tears down the ridiculous levels of sensitivity people have built up and their quick leap to call certain words and ideas as “offensive.”

Monk’s the kind of guy who calls it like he sees it: grow up and toughen up.

Oftentimes (well, almost all the time), that doesn’t go very well, particularly in this age of hypersensitivity.

To be clear: this is a Black story. Cord Jefferson. Percival Everett. Jeffrey Wright. All Black men. And the rest of the lead cast is Black, as well. Sterling K. Brown. Issa Rae. Leslie Uggams. Erika Alexander.

Maybe some will find it offensive the white publishers are total boobs (and pretentious ones, at that) who are easily manipulated. Meh. Go for it. It’s satire. And it’s all in service to a story that attempts to assess where we are as a society. It’s a fair question to ask how did that book find its way to the bookshelves (physical and virtual)? How did that movie make it into theatres?

My Pafology

Monk is told the blackest thing about his books is the ink. But how can that be if he is a Black man telling the stories he wants to tell? Doesn’t that make his stories “Black”? Underscoring (or undermining) that question, Monk sees movies like Antebellum, Straight Outta Compton and New Jack City in circulation on TV, reinforcing certain messaging, concepts and imagery.

At the same book convention where his name tag is misspelled, Monk becomes spellbound by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae, Insecure). She’s in a packed room, in stark contrast to Monk’s sparsely attended panel. She’s there to promote her latest work, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. While being interviewed, she’s well-spoken and comes across as quite privileged in her upbringing. And then she lavishes the audience with a reading of a passage from her book. Everything changes while she reads her foul-mouthed trash, stereotypical dialogue between a couple Black women as they discuss a pregnancy.

American Fiction goes absurdist when Monk writes — as an act of pure rebellion to punk the publishers — a book called My Pafology under a pseudonym. Taking a cue from Sintara, Monk shifts the focus to all the stereotypes of Black men and their relationships. The gun violence. Crack dealers. Bloody endings. Killed by cops. All the staples of those movies continuously put in front of people.

My Pafology is total garbage written to vent an overwhelming sense of frustration with an industry Monk loves; it’s a literary “F”-bomb sent to all the publishers who repeatedly turn down his work. But My Pafology is bought for $750,000. Mortified and not even wanting the book to see the light of day, Monk insists the title be changed from My Pafology to the “F” word – an outrageous request certain to be a deal breaker. But no. The two white publishers converse and conclude the idea is pure brilliance. Then the movie rights go for an outrageous fortune: $4 million. They’re already pursuing Michael B. Jordan to star; they can already see the movie posters with Jordan sporting a durag.

Along the way, this comment is slipped in: “It’s not factually a true story.”

Flesh and Bone Robot

Take the insanity of Monk’s situation and think about what he’s trying to expose. He wants to talk about Black stereotypes and get to the bottom of why they’re there and why they linger. How are Black people held back and how are they advanced? What are the stereotypes in modern America and who promotes them? And why? Extrapolate it out; the same concerns ultimately apply to and extend across all people.

Questionable works are tagged as urgent, raw, necessary and essential. American Fiction digs in its heels and challenges the notions of guilt-ridden white people seeking absolution and buzzy concepts like “authenticity” and the “Black story.” But it also gives each of the primary characters depth, elevating them beyond caricatures and lifting the weighty material even higher.

Even as Monk challenges the veracity of Sintara’s books, she counters by noting she does extensive research and she conducts numerous interviews. Then she writes her stories to find her truth.

In the classic pause of “but wait, there’s more,” American Fiction doesn’t begin and end in the literary world. There are additional textures and situations that bring home the humanity. Monk’s mom, Agnes (Leslie Uggams, perhaps best known now for Deadpool), is experiencing the decline of Alzheimer’s. Monk’s brother, Clifford (Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us), is a plastic surgeon enduring the financial woes of post-divorce life. He’s broke. And he’s come out as gay.

Ultimately, those aren’t “Black” stories in the popular, narrow sense. But they are Black people sharing in some of the uncomfortable parts of the universal human fabric.

Everett’s Erasure was published more than two decades ago and yet here, in this format, it’s never been more timely. In American Fiction, Cord Jefferson has found his truth and hopefully it will serve as a much-needed reset in so many conversations and conflicts.