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Why ‘American Fiction’ Misses Instant Classic Status by Inches

Cord Jefferson's impressive debut detours just when it's getting (very) good

“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.

AMERICAN FICTION | Trailer 2

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!

AMERICAN FICTION | Bookstore - Official Clip

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.

None.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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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.

9 Comments

  1. This review is so spot on. The central story of American Fiction is so good and seriously entertaining. The family drama is tired and plays like an indie film from the 90s.

    1. Glad you saw it that way. I watched the film with a friend who is a screenwriter and we had a very similar reaction. But I didn’t hear that perspective from most critics. Still, an engaging film (if a bit frustrating).

    2. Agreed. I remember thinking how long it was taking to get to him actually writing the book, the whole point of the movie! The only family member they really needed was the mom whose medical bills convince him to go ahead with the deception. They should’ve dropped the dead sister, gay brother, and family maid getting married.

      1. When they introduced the family maid’s romance I turned to my friend, also bothered by the storytelling detours, and joked. “They’re gonna show us them getting married.” And they did!!

  2. My wife and I saw it last night. The audience, including us, howled with laughter, starting with “Stagg R. Leigh” and ending with the imaginary assassination of Monk by crazed police officers (which the Hollywood director loves!).

    The interplay between Monk and his agent was priceless. I did not feel cheated or irritated by the stories of “minor” characters. A truly great movie which savaged woke culture and white guilt.
    ,

  3. I’ve seen the previews on the net, but it hasn’t come to my town yet. The actor playing Monk is so very expressive that I can’t wait to see the movie itself.

  4. I enjoyed it. It’s not “Citizen Kane” (although I’ve never been able to stay awake through “Citizen Kane” the three times I’ve tried to watch it, so that’s probably a plus), but I thought it was well done.

    I liked the sub-plots with the family, even the maid’s marriage to the security guard. And, the gay brother’s story arc also made sense to me. The main point of the movie was the family’s patriarch and how his flaws had damaged each of them differently and the movie played through each of those separate stories. That was essential. Monk was his father’s “favorite” but was left to clean up the damage his father had done. Once he did that; caring for his mother, taking over the role of caretaker from his sister and accepting his brother into the family in his entirety; then and only then was Monk able to be his true self and earn the love of Coraline.

    In conjunction with what the film is saying about race it was important to show all that on camera, including the wedding scene. The point was that black lives are lives. The family was smart but not always wise, didn’t always get along but loved one another, made mistakes, acted selfishly, acted selflessly… It was a movie about real people living real, three dimensional lives.

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