American Fiction (United States, 2023)

December 11, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
American Fiction Poster

American Fiction is the best kind of satire – one that is full-throated in its message, which it delivers with a cutting edge, while simultaneously taking the time to develop the characters in a meaningful way. However, although the ending honors the former aspect, taking thematic elements to their natural conclusion, it leaves character arcs unfinished. As a calling-card, one couldn’t imagine something more combustible than the one offered by Cord Jefferson with his feature debut.

Things aren’t going well for Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright). It’s like he’s stuck in a bad country song – he has lost his job (at least temporarily), his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) has died, his mother (Leslie Uggams) needs to be put in permanent care, his gay brother (Sterling K. Brown) is a ne’er-do-well, and no publisher is interested in his latest book. Then…kismet! After being told that his novels aren’t “Black” enough, Monk jokingly writes a book (My Pafology) using the p-o-v of a criminal, filled with “Black” slang and “Black” tropes. He wants to make a point to the publishing industry (and to readers – often white people – who buy books like this to experience “authenticity”) but experiences a mixture of shock, giddiness, and dismay when he is offered $750,000 from a publisher and another $4M for the movie rights (with Michael B. Jordan “circling”). And, in order to validate what he has written, Monk is forced to adopt a persona – that of a wanted fugitive who may (or may not be) a murderer.

The unexpected success of My Pafology (which Monk renames Fuck) creates a deep sense of unease in the main character. On the one hand, he needs the money to be able to afford a top-notch nursing home for his mother. On the other hand, he feels a deep sense of guilt about purveying “slop at a dumpster.” When his girlfriend Coraline (Erika Alexander), who doesn’t know he wrote the book, praises it, he reacts angrily. It exposes the tension he feels between real art and “nonsense” – a tension that exists at all levels of pop culture.

The most fascinating aspect of American Fiction is the push-pull that exists within Monk and what it means for the story. Although he has written Fuck, he distances it from himself, allowing “Stagg R. Leigh” to be more of a different person than a nom de plume. He speaks about his writing with increasing disgust, calling it “written to satisfy the tastes of guilt-ridden white people” and “the kind of book critics call important and necessary.” Jefferson raises legitimate questions about whether current Black cultural flashpoints are true representations of an experience or whether they are designed to appeal to the widest possible audience for financial gain. Monk struggles with this and never really resolves it in a way that satisfies himself as an author and a Black person. He ambivalence emerges most forcefully in a conversation he has with another Black writer, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae).

Jeffrey Wright, whose career has included such major franchises as Bond (where he played Felix Leiter) and The Hunger Games as well as more serious-minded fare like Angels in America and Basquiat (the movie that brought him widespread attention), may have hit a new high with American Fiction. Accorded a rare starring role, Wright brings all his talent as an actor to bear on Monk. The character’s struggles are conveyed to the audience in a visceral fashion. This is someone without all the answers and whose hypocrisy is never resolved. Wright stands in the middle of a brutal satire and nevertheless crafts a character who is entirely human. Support is provided by the likes of Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, and Leslie Uggams but they reside in the background while Wright remains at the forefront.

The ending is forceful in its satirical content, going “full meta” with a choose-your-own-ending concept. Three options are posited and the viewer is invited to pick the one they find the most appealing. The film indicates which is “real” but also illustrates how Hollywood’s mandates are different. It’s a clever conceit but a question remains: does honoring the message somehow betray the characters? Or is that the point? Regardless, American Fiction demands to be seen so that those questions can be addressed by each individual audience member.

American Fiction (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2023-12-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1