American Fiction (2023, dir. Cord Jefferson)

by | Feb 1, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 117 mins

UK Distributor: Curzon

UK Release Date: 2 February 2024

WHO’S IN AMERICAN FICTION?

Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Adam Brody, Leslie Uggams, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Okieriete Onaodowan, Keith David, Raymond Anthony Thomas, Miriam Shor, J.C. MacKenzie, Patrick Fischler, Michael Cyril Creighton

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Cord Jefferson (director, writer, producer), Jermaine Johnson, Nikos Karamigios and Ben LeClair (producers), Laura Karpman (composer), Cristina Dunlap (cinematographer), Hilda Rasula (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A frustrated novelist (Wright) acts against popular Black stereotypes…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON AMERICAN FICTION?

[This is a republished version of our review for American Fiction from its original publication in November 2023]

When it comes to Black cinema, the harsh truth is that much of it is defined by popular stereotypes. For every Moonlight or Black Panther, there is at least a dozen other movies where Black characters are portrayed as violent gangsters, ghetto-dwelling drug addicts, victims of police brutality, or even helpless souls that only the White protagonist can save. As offensive as some of these stereotypes can be, they have existed and will sadly continue to exist for decades because there is, for better or worse, an audience for them. Their popularity stems from the collective desire to empathise with their struggle while also feeling comfortable in the much safer bubble we occupy, but there is an argument – as writer-director Cord Jefferson states in his intelligent and hugely entertaining debut feature American Fiction – that such consumption has led to Black creators being pigeonholed by the demand for the same unflattering portrayals over and over again.

Jefferson, who here adapts Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, has a lot of fun pointing out the hypocrisies and casual prejudice of those who absorb the popular narratives of films and literature that lean into those popular stereotypes. However, the filmmaker also lends his feature a surprisingly sweet and heartfelt edge, which not only takes the load off of its more satirical content but achieves exactly what a lot of those films celebrating those racial stereotypes don’t, which is to give a sense of dignity and humanity to its Black protagonists.

In the film, Thelonius “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a middle-aged writer and college professor who is in a permanent state of frustration. His books are failing to sell, he’s been placed on an extended leave of absence after offending a (White) student with his use of the n-word within a literature context, and his elderly mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Most of all, Monk feels contempt for the staggering amounts of media depicting what he feels to be inferior representations of the Black experience, and for how popular they seem to be. Case in point, he’s fuming that fellow author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) is seeing love and success come her way for her debut novel We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, which contains just about every popular Black stereotype imaginable.

Eventually, Monk decides out of pure spite to pen his own piece of Black-pandering literature – initially entitled My Pafology before being retitled to something much more hilariously provocative – under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh, an escaped convict who’s supposedly on the lam. Unfortunately for Monk, the book receives plenty of attention, and soon he’s thrust into a world of uncomfortable media bias where White media types eagerly exploit the Black experience for the satisfaction of easy-to-please consumers.

American Fiction is definitely satirical, as you may be able to tell from that plot description, but refreshingly, it is rarely farcical. Jefferson grounds a lot of the humour targeted toward mainstream Black media, hardly (if at all) going over-the-top with the increasingly ludicrous and all-too plausible trajectory that the fictional Leigh’s novel is becoming a genuine sensation. It’s a more restrained film than the lively trailers might lead you to believe, but it is no less funny, as there are a lot of genuine belly-laughs to be had from the sheer insanity of how Black stereotyping in media is celebrated, including a TV channel that shows brutal footage from films about gangsters and slavery when promoting Black cinema (the icing on the cake is the cheery music accompanying the promo). It is a very funny film, often at the expense of those who misinterpret such stereotypes as “authentic” to the overall Black experience, but Jefferson keeps the comedy under a firm grip, allowing the point of the satire to be driven home much easier, and avoiding the risk of it becoming a full-on farce where everything ceases to be as painfully realistic.  

In one of Jefferson’s many smart decisions, the crux of American Fiction also does not rest entirely on this satirical premise. A large chunk of the film is dedicated to Jeffrey Wright’s Monk dealing with his own personal issues, including some family drama – spurred by a rather shocking tragedy – his blossoming relationship with neighbour Coraline (Erika Alexander), and most significantly his own judgementalism that might just be causing his frustrations to boil over. Rather than disrupt the comedic tone of the main premise, this slightly more morose strand serves the important function of giving Monk and several members of his family, including his unreliable brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) and even his family maid Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), plenty of development that allows them to become well-rounded characters. For instance, Monk isn’t just some grump whose cynicism ultimately defines him; he is shown to be someone who is capable of warm and compassionate feelings, with said cynicism preventing him from understanding other people’s perspectives that are different to his own. The character becomes much more interesting as a result, and Wright’s performance – a rare lead turn for the revered character actor – is so good that you really do understand why he thinks the way he does, even if it does make him out to be kind of a miserable git half the time.

It is a very well-written movie, for Jefferson manages to balance out the personal drama and the biting satire near-faultlessly, with only a slight wobble as it begins leaning into heightened territory in its closing minutes. Not only do both tones fail to clash with one another, but they work harmoniously to give a biting commentary on media consumption of archaic Black stereotypes, as well as a three-dimensional study of the character who’s actively trying to do something about it. It works well as a comedy, for there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments to enjoy, and it works just as effectively as a family drama, with strongly-defined and likeable characters going through some genuine issues that have almost nothing to do with the racial stuff. Funnily enough, it also works as an unexpected companion piece to Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, since both films are about (partially, anyway) the heartfelt connections made by a curmudgeon with plenty of justifiable disdain for the world around them.

With all of that behind it, American Fiction is a bold and impressive debut for Cord Jefferson, who in just his first feature manages to bring plenty of important discussions to the spotlight while still making it fun and accessible for most audiences. Not since Jordan Peele impressed with his own debut feature Get Out has the very literal Black and White issue been so much uncomfortable fun to sit through.

SO, TO SUM UP…

American Fiction is an intelligent and hugely entertaining debut feature for writer-director Cord Jefferson, who lays plenty of laugh-out-loud satire onto some uncomfortable topics about popular Black stereotypes, but also provides plenty of sweet heartfelt character moments to prevent it from slipping too far into farce.

Four of of five stars

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