“American Fiction” is a blistering takedown of Identity Politics that keeps getting interrupted by a lesser story it cares too much about.
Jeffrey Wright plays a black professor who can’t find a publisher for his latest novel. So he goes the lowest common denominator route with shocking results.
It’s as sharply realized as the trailer (and early buzz) suggest, but first-time writer/director Cord Jefferson lacks faith in this concept.
Thelonius “Monk” Ellison (Wright) is struggling to fit in with today’s literary world. He’s got talent to burn, but publishers keep rejecting his latest novel. It’s too high brow for today’s consumer, they sniff.
So Monk tries to follow in the footsteps of a fellow black author (Issa Rae) who struck it rich with a story straight from the ‘hood. Guns. Drugs. Baby mamas. Every negative black stereotype you can imagine, and then some.
It’s demeaning, Monk says, one reason he quickly pens a similar tale called, “My Pafology.” It’s his way of flipping the literary world the bird and letting his anger out at the same time.
To Monk’s shock, a bidding war over the book ensues.
- Will Monk officially sell out and use the money to pay for his elderly mother’s nursing home?
- Could his newfound fame impact his romance with a smart, attractive neighbor (Erika Alexander)?
- Or will the film set this fascinating story aside for a deep, perfunctory dive into the Ellison clan?
Winner, winner chicken dinner!
The film opens with Monk arguing over the “n-word” with a progressive white student in class – the subject? Flannery O’Conner’s “The Artificial N-Word.”
“I got over it, I’m pretty sure you can, too,” he says to his wounded student.
Guess who wins that battle? That’s rhetorical.
The story abruptly shifts from academia gone woke to the inner workings of Monk’s clan. That folds Sterling K. Brown and Tracee Ellis Ross into the tale, never a bad thing for a feature film. It still diverts attention from the film’s satirical targets – woke whites who virtue signal their way through the arts community.
Jefferson lands some satirical uppercuts early on, suggesting the best is yet to come.
“American Fiction” has Monk assuming a thuggish persona for his hit novel, complete with a pseudonym and dangerous backstory. That generates a fair share of laughs, but Jefferson doesn’t overplay his hand.
It’s also fun to watch progressive literary types (agents, marketers, etc.) fawn over “My Pafology” as if it were Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”
Phonies, the lot of them.
So why does the story keep going back to Monk’s dysfunctional family?
We rarely stay in the more fascinating and vital part of “American Fiction” for long. We’re even invited to the wedding of two very minor characters for no good reason whatsoever.
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You could argue Jefferson is making a point by showcasing the kind of middle-class black family storytellers and, by extension, publishers ignore.
Understood. So why belabor it for the film’s two-hour running time?
It leaves “American Fiction,” based on the 2001 novel by Percival Everett, a maddening awards season gambit. It’s the closest thing to an attack on woke overreach we’ll see from mainstream Hollywood, and it hails from the progressive Left. It’s smart and biting in fair measures, and it has its perfect conduit in Wright, who knows precisely what tone to play from scene to scene.
The sprawling narrative short changes more than the film’s signature howl. What about poor Caroline, depicted as a near-perfect girlfriend type without an inner life of her own?
Why obsess over Monk’s brother and his gay lifestyle? Monk isn’t a homophobe, and the main storyline doesn’t deserve yet another narrative detour to get lost in.
The satirical side of “American Fiction” deserves our full attention, something the film can’t always provide.
HiT or Miss: “American Fiction” skewers liberal hypocrisy like few recent films, but its insistence on expanding its storytelling canvas hurts more than it helps.