AMERICAN FICTION never feels as cutting as it could be with its commentary, but Cord Jefferson’s debut feature is witty, with sharp characters. Ironically, focusing on the expectations placed upon artists never quite delivers unexpected insights with its satire. However, engaging performances from Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown are the best vehicles for the script’s funnier and more keenly observed moments.
Wright leads the cast as Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, an academic and writer who has had middling popular success, in his view, as a result of his refusal to toe the line on what Black writers should be seen writing about, in contrast to Sintara Golden’s (Issa Rae) commercially successful authorship of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. When he has to return to Boston for a family affair, he reassesses his personal priorities and clashes against the publishing industry’s expectations of him.
In a pique of frustration, Monk writes a book intended to be satirical of the ‘trauma porn’ that is often expected of Black writers. In doing so, white publishing executives lap it up, and the film then derives much of its humour from the stereotypical, profane, ex-con alter-ego – Stagg R. Leigh – Monk adopts to sell the charade. Interwoven amongst this are further strands about what it means to be authentic. Monk frequently presents himself as standoffish and aloof. Still, the film and its characters question how much of that is true, especially as he develops a relationship with neighbour Coraline (Erika Alexander). Sterling K. Brown’s Cliff provides another engaging angle from which to consider the film’s ideas of personal expression, playing Monk’s newly-out gay brother.
“Jefferson also uses his framing and blocking to emphasise this dominance of white voices in the discussion, [and while some of] these flourishes are perhaps not the most profound examinations of the topic, [their] tone allows Wright’s rising frustration to derive the necessary humour from them.”
For a film as densely packed with ideas as AMERICAN FICTION, it is surprising it feels as light and droll as it frequently does. The film begins with a swipe at campus ‘slacktivism’, establishing Monk’s dry wit when he responds, “I got over it, I’m sure you can too,” to a young white student who castigates him for writing a racial slur in his classroom. Jefferson also uses his framing and blocking to emphasise this dominance of white voices in the discussion when Monk, dismayed at the content in a live reading of Sintara’s book, is immediately obscured in the frame by a white woman standing to applaud. These flourishes are perhaps not the most profound examinations of the topic, but their tone allows Wright’s rising frustration to derive the necessary humour from them.
The film also explores artistic elitism and personal authenticity, but AMERICAN FICTION is at its strongest when leaning into Wright’s comedic ability, hitherto untapped by most of his most recent dramatic work in the likes of HBO’s Westworld or THE BATMAN (even his wry appearances in Wes Anderson’s recent output is a different register to what he displays here). When adopting the Stagg persona, his body language is delightfully awkward. His witticisms are delivered with crisp and observant air, yet more slapstick sequences (such as railing against the decision of a store to place his books in the African-American Studies section) effortlessly sit alongside. Monk is a bit of a curmudgeon, and although misanthropic-but-witty-loner-with-a-heart-of-gold is a well-worn archetype in modern media, Wright sells it with an exasperation and timing that retains empathy and sympathy. Adam Brody’s brief screen time as a self-satisfied Hollywood executive is also superbly pitched, if similarly lacking in subtlety. However, as comedically sharp as AMERICAN FICTION is, it doesn’t always marry the disparate elements of its plot and themes into something impactful.
“However, as refreshingly bold as the film’s tonal contrast is, there is a complexity of character hinted at but left frustratingly unexplored in these distilled moments.”
A stand-out moment comes in a conversation between Wright and Brown’s characters when they are discussing whether Cliff would have liked to come out to their late father: “At least he’d be rejecting the real me,” laments Cliff. With two actors as talented as Wright and Brown, it is an affecting moment that follows surprisingly well from the more comedic interactions preceding it. However, as refreshingly bold as the film’s tonal contrast is, there is a complexity of character hinted at but left frustratingly unexplored in these distilled moments. Other brief digressions – such as Monk lingering on a photo of the infamous ‘Doll Test’ cited in the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case – are less elegantly handled by Jefferson and his script. Monk’s family drama, and the idea it represents a more authentic set of problems than those he is forced into displaying as ‘Stagg’, is also maybe a little thinly developed.
A late swing towards a meta-commentary on the film’s story might have a Marmite quality to many viewers and is probably the film’s most significant nod towards the structure of Erasure, the Percival Everett book on which it is based. Although (again) amusing, it skirts around the edges of the deeper points it seems keen to make.
AMERICAN FICTION is as interested in the tales we – and Americans especially – tell ourselves as much as the comedy. The film wants to examine – or at least illustrate – the contrivances we develop to convince ourselves why we are not successful, that society genuinely wants to deal with structural inequality, or why we cannot fully express our true selves. When it has performances of the quality of Wright and Brown’s, it retains sufficient weight to engage the audience with its characters. However, the idea it has innovative satirical observations once it has established that route into its ideas is perhaps another fiction.