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American Fiction (2023)::rating::4::rating::4

American Fiction is pulled in so many different directions by conflicting emotions and competing genres, it’s a wonder that satisfying story emerges at all.  Most prominently, we have a film of frustration, a satirical rant about Black representation in modern fiction.  Beneath that lies a gooey center, in which a growly curmudgeon finds his first flickers of true love.  But wait, there’s more:  Fiction also throws in a simmering family drama, occasional jabs at Hollywood phoniness, and moments of poignant comedy.  All those disparate elements should clash, but writer-director Cord Jefferson finds just the right balance between salty and sweet, and the result is a refreshingly delicious experience .

Freely adapted from Percival Everett’s novel, ErasureFiction centers on Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright).   He’s a prickly, cynical writer, whose esoteric books seem to draw praise and dust in equal amounts.  Monk is a professor of literature in Los Angeles, and he redirects an increasing amount of anger onto his fearful students.  The faculty board sends him on a forced sabbatical, suggesting that he visit his family in Boston.  Despite protests that seeing his dysfunctional relatives will only exacerbate his emotional tailspin, Monk obliges and hops on a plane.

Turns out, Monk’s family lives with a layer of friendly tension.  Most of their conversations could either dissolve into laughter or escalate into argument.  Monk first meets up with his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), an amiable physician who uses humor to make serious points.  Later, we see their mother (Leslie Uggams), who is in the early stages of cognitive decline.  It quickly becomes apparent that this will not be a short vacation for Monk.

At this point, a major tragedy strikes, and I don’t want to give away any more than that.  Its swift and sudden nature have a profound effect on Monk, so I’ll let you experience the impact as he does.  I will say that the event draws out Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), Monk’s troubled younger brother.  Cliff’s wife caught him in bed with a man, which sends him into a hedonistic breakdown of drugs and promiscuous sex.  Against the backdrop of their shared grief, Monk and Cliff must now sort out their complex relationship, and whether any part of it can be saved.

Meanwhile, Cliff also strikes up a relationship with Coraline (Erika Alexander).  She’s the neighbor at the Ellison family’s summer home.  They begin an awkward courtship, and thus begins the slow thaw of Monk’s frosty exterior.  It’s here the movie hits its strongest notes, as we explore the rise of Monk’s inevitable humanity.

Now, what if I told you all that description only represents part of American Fiction‘s overall narrative?  Yes, Jefferson and company build multiple levels of story, and the family drama is simply the bedrock.  Turns out, Monk’s personal crisis happens during professional crossroads, as well.  His agent (John Ortiz) has been turning up the heat for Monk to, you know…make some money.  The best way to do that seems to be for Monk to pander and write about the stereotypical aspects of the Black experience:  Guns, drugs, prison, and absentee fathers. For Monk, this is a hill worth dying on.  Being Black can be about more than that.  When writers like Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) make a fortune with books like We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, Monk can’t contain his annoyance.

All that changes when Monk comes up with My Pafology, a send-up of so many Black novels set somewhere in the ghetto.  Monk writes under the alias of Stagg R. Leigh, an angry, edgy Black writer on the run from the law.  The only problem?  Nobody gets the joke.  My Pafology nets a massive book deal, and Monk’s militant fugitive becomes an instant celebrity.  Finally, Monk gets the validation he craves, but at the cost of becoming everything he hates.

Put all that together, and you’ve got a lot of movie crammed into 117 minutes.  Yet, amazingly, American Fiction never feels overstuffed or confusing.  That’s because Jefferson correctly uses a cockeyed sense of humor as a kind of throughline for the entire film.  Whether its Monk’s confrontations with pretentious Black writers or insufferable white publishers, or even the vapid Hollywood establishment, genuinely funny moments abound.  What’s even more remarkable is how Jefferson switches from one style of humor to the next:  Monk’s romantic pursuits often feature gentle, knowing humor, while the jabs at literature and filmmaking have the sharp bite of satire.

This dense storytelling also gets a lift from a top-notch ensemble.  Wright doesn’t so much play Monk as fully inhabit him, with every syllable of dialogue gravel-growled to absolute perfection.  Ross and Brown are perfectly cast as his siblings.  Brown is especially strong as a man in as much personal crisis as Monk, only he’s much more open about his descent.  Uggams brings a sturdy sadness to the mother who’s slowly slipping away.  As with its writing, the acting in American Fiction is powerful, but never showy.  Nothing about any of this feels like bait for awards.

Yet, American Fiction has gained those accolades anyway.  The reason is simple:  Whether it’s aiming for saccharine or sarcasm, Jefferson’s dramedy never stops being real.  Humor almost always has to ring with some form of truth, and this film is loaded with it.  Indeed, American Fiction ends up proving Monk’s point:  This story is about a man coming to terms with his own experience of being Black.  It’s also a lot more than that.

117 min.  R.  On demand.


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