Film Reviews
Photo courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios

Director Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” has garnered a lot of attention, and it deserves it. Based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” Jefferson’s screenplay adaptation satirically and humorously targets publishers’ inclination to champion Black literature reinforcing racist ideas. This environment stifles university literature professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison whose esoteric work is rejected.

Set in Boston (as opposed to D.C. of the novel), thoroughly and appropriately offended by the notoriety of Black female novelist Sintara Golden’s (Issa Rae) “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” Monk invents a pseudonym, Stagg R. Leigh, a fugitive on the run from the F.B.I. Under this name, that most white people don’t register, Monk writes his “ghetto” novel, initially calling it “My Pafology,” changed to another title later that I can’t say on the radio. As he writes, imaginatively within the film, two characters act out a dramatic scene from the book, reinforcing just how offensively clichéd and recognizable (only slightly exaggerated) such scenes truly are.

Nominated for a prestigious Literary Award, with Monk serving on the Award committee, mayhem predictably ensues with a brilliant, radical conclusion. In further contrast to formulaic films, Monk enjoys a diverse family community: his mother Agnes in failing health (Leslie Uggams); his wilder, gay brother Cliff (St. Louis native Sterling K. Brown); sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross); and homecare provider Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor). At his beach house, Monk enjoys a romance with neighbor/lawyer Coraline (Erika Alexander). And yet, all the women deserved further development, for the female characters have not enjoyed the complex reinterpretation accorded Monk though he and author Golden have a thought-provoking exchange late in the film.

All the performances are first rate, with an exceptional Jeffrey Wright as Monk. Shifting flawlessly between his personas, presenting a complicated man, Wright segues with ease from exasperation and dismay to committed determination and seething anger. Serious and funny, “American Fiction” leads the way to more wide-ranging explorations of Black experiences devoid of insulting, narrow-minded stereotypes. Check listings.

Related Articles

Sign Up for KDHX Airwaves newsletter