In Cord Jefferson’s jaggedly funny and cannily perceptive film American Fiction, literary agent Arthur (John Ortiz) tries talking sense into his high-minded and low-selling novelist client Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), who is frustrated at the public’s appetite for “black trauma porn”. Trying to bring Monk down to earth, Arthur argues that while white people say they want the truth, really “they just want to feel absolved.”
Since absolution is not at the top of Monk’s priorities, he decides to rub the public’s nose in what he calls the “trough” of their degraded taste by writing what he despises under an assumed name. To his horror, nobody gets the joke. But then, Monk does not seem like a guy who can tell jokes.
Adapted by Jefferson (The Good Place, Watchmen) from Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, American Fiction is a brisk, smart, and frequently hilarious film about resolutely unfunny topics. It delivers a mood both nightmarish and light-hearted, aiming with equal accuracy at the pretentious and simple-minded. Jefferson keeps the core of blistering disgust that powered Erasure while amplifying the comedy found in the liminal space between perceptions and reality.
While the story is theoretically on Monk’s side—much of American Fiction‘s satire comes from the white liberal characters’ overly aggressive pursuit of performative allyship—it has no illusions about his being a fun hang. Jefferson uses him as a punchline, especially when Monk feels forced to act out his fake literary persona. A starchy writing professor and rarely published experimental novelist, Monk has been put on leave after berating a white student who objected to his referencing a racial slur used by Flannery O’Connor. Monk returns to his childhood home where even though the rest of his family loves him, it is clear they may not like him.
While navigating the rocky waters between himself and his siblings Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), Monk also grapples with the mental decline of his mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams). Those family pressures are piled atop his other boiling frustrations. Monk seethes about the runaway success of the film’s fictive book, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, a novel praised for authenticity even though to him, the Oberlin-schooled author Sintara (Issa Rae) seems to be just recycling stereotypes.
He despises how his work is valued more for the color of his skin than what he writes. In one of many scenes Jefferson plays as broad comedy (using Wright’s rarely used gift for physical humor) without obscuring the satire, Monk grabs his books off a bookstore’s African American Studies shelf and hustles them over to Fiction, telling the befuddled clerk that the only thing black about his books “is the ink”.
But instead of cracking, Monk starts writing. He cranks out a book hitting all the tropes—poverty, guns, drugs, fatherless children, abuse, poor spelling—and calls it My Pafology. Soon, the publishers who ignored Monk are frantic to publish this riveting read from one Stagg R. Leigh (Monk’s pseudonym, another joke that zooms over people’s heads to his disgust). Then Hollywood comes calling.
The people beating a path to Monk’s door are greedy not for his last novel (a retelling of Aeschylus’ The Persians) or the reality of his life (academia, a family filled with doctors, solid spelling capabilities) but a repetition of the tropes of black dysfunction laid out in bestsellers from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to Sapphire’s Push. The more modern-age minstrelsy he gives them, the more they want. But given Monk’s disdain for mass culture (he mocks a fellow professor for writing books people can buy at the airport), he is tempted less by selling millions of copies than by the truckloads of money on offer: his unpublished books and lack of a salary will not pay for Agnes’ care.
As potent as Monk’s struggle is with authenticity and not playing to lowest-common-denominator assumptions, there are a few moments in American Fiction that ring less true. Most can be chalked up to cultural shifts since Erasure was published in 2001; a stray Karl Ove Knausgård reference is not enough to bridge the time gap. The pulpy, overripe Lee Daniels style is far less in vogue these days. The cringingly puffed-up white director (Adam Brody), who seems to see himself as the next Jordan Peele, feels more of the moment.
Everett, as a professor and small-press novelist himself, is more attuned to the specifics of early-2000s puffed-up literary absurdities. An excised subplot where Monk battles with a gang of avant-gardists who see him as a sellout for having published anything is missed for the moment Monk is decried as “a mimetic hack”. This is the sort of thing that can get a very specific kind of laugh, especially from anybody who has stumbled over “mimesis” an unjustifiable number of times in academic writing.
But Jefferson appears to see little upside in obscurantism. American Fiction might be working in an edgy culture-war milieu like Todd Field’s Tár, but it is more playful and broader in scope. The emphasis on the “average uniqueness” of Monk’s relationships, his tentative connection with a new girlfriend (Erika Alexander), and the warm yet tension-filled exchanges batted between his siblings as they circle but don’t address their mother’s looming mortality stands as a relatable corrective to the corrosively flattening kind of story Monk has allowed himself to tell.
The question that American Fiction asks is whether this kind of “average uniqueness” is what people will want to read or see. At one point, after Monk and Sintara are appointed as token diverse judges for a literary prize, they are lectured by the white judges about how “we need to hear black voices”. It’s a funny moment, but carrying with it a sardonic realism about how little some will ever want to hear what people like Monk have to say.
That Stagg R. Leigh, though, he is something else.