‘American Fiction’ review


“I see what you’re doing,” Thelonious “Monk” Ellison’s agent says about half an hour through “American Fiction,” a new film from writer-director Cord Jefferson based on the 2001 book “Erasure.” “Good, because it’s not subtle,” Monk retorts. 

This is the joke of “American Fiction,” wherein Monk (Jeffery Wright), a Black academic and novelist facing financial hardship and disinterest in his latest work, sees a bestseller from another Black author (Issa Rae), “We’s Lives in the Ghetto,” which depicts a heightened and exploitative picture of Black life. Angered by what he feels is pandering, he writes the book “F*ck,” an equally trashy, stereotyped version of the Black experience, under a pseudonym. To his ire, the book becomes a bestseller and critical darling among white audiences, and the plot progresses from there. It’s a smart, hilarious takedown of the types of work critics might call “necessary” or “powerful,” and a legitimately emotional narrative in its own right.

The satire is well-played. The film avoids low-hanging fruit (at least, most of the time), instead carefully planting little jokes that chip away at the film’s overall message. The aforementioned agent character, Arthur, and Monk’s gay brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this role) are particularly funny. But satire doesn’t always take center stage. Just like his book is not representative of Monk’s actual life, the movie is more than a gimmicky comedy. Underneath all that is a played-straight drama about Monk’s normal struggles with a dementia-stricken mother and a grief-stricken family. It’s all very adult — affecting, yet dull hardships. And while “bitter, antisocial academic” is no novel character archetype, Monk is funny enough and portrayed more than well enough that he remains compelling.

The comedy and the drama go hand-in-hand, as well. Of course, despite the general unseriousness of Monk’s book, it does contribute to the exact cultural perception of Blackness that he despises. Whether or not that harm is offset by the financial empowerment of a Black person facing legitimate hardship becomes a key question. But likewise, Monk’s thoughtful regret about his situation is greatly contrasted with the ad execs, critics, and movie studios seeking to capitalize on his work.