tiff 2023

We’re Going to Be Talking About This Book-World Satire All Fall

Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut, American Fiction, is a sharp comedy about racial commodification anchored by a terrific Jeffrey Wright. Photo: Claire Folger/Orion Releasing

When at rest, Jeffrey Wright’s face tends toward the serious. He has a heavy brow, which he likes to accentuate by tilting his head forward and looking over the glasses he frequently wears onscreen. That air of weary authority that Wright so effortlessly projects has, in recent years, been put in service to roles as cops and generals, politicians and journalists, and, in American Fiction, an academic. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is an author and professor who at first seems like another of these figures of seen-it-all prominence. But, despite his depression and bursts of anger, there’s a lightness to Monk that soon sets him apart. At a book festival, he walks into a talk being given by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), whose debut novel, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, is being fawned over by the moderator. When Sintara — an Oberlin-educated former publishing assistant who gets cheers from the crowd by wondering “Where is our representation?” — abruptly switches to AAVE when reading from her book, Monk’s eyebrows levitate up his head. They rise so far that they seem on the verge of forming parentheses that could excerpt him from the whole experience until, with perfect timing, his face is replaced by the rapturous one of a white woman in the audience who’s just shot to her feet in front of him to participate in a standing ovation.

American Fiction is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, a dark comedy about how Monk is unable to find a publisher for his own latest manuscript, a reworking of Aeschylus’s The Persians, because it’s deemed inadequately Black. In a burst of frustration, and having just watched a bit of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ on a hotel TV, he scribbles out a compendium of over-the-top clichés about urban suffering under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, titles it “My Pafology,” and gets his reluctant agent (John Ortiz) to send it to publishers in what he thinks will be received as a scathing critique of their narrow conception of the Black experience. Instead, he gets a huge offer, leaving Monk in conflicted anguish because with his mother (Leslie Uggams) showing signs of memory slippage, he does really need the money. Everett’s book exists in the shadow of Sapphire’s Push, though it’s not as though the racial commodification he mocked has gone anywhere — hell, whether it’s an intentional reference point or not, American Dirt was published just three years ago. Still, the film, which marks the directorial debut of journalist turned TV writer Cord Jefferson, also explores the ripe territory that is the Hollywood-adaptation pipeline.

I’ve already had arguments about whether the satire in American Fiction is too broad, the sort that lets its audience knowingly laugh along rather than feel indicted. Having served on an awards committee whose deliberations ended in a situation close to the one put onscreen in the film, I’d say it’s dead on. But Jefferson also, wisely, approaches the material as foremost the story of a closed-off man for whom professional bitterness has become another means of shutting everyone out. Monk is not there just to be on the receiving end of the well-intentioned bigotry of a reductive industry or to serve as the avatar for anyone driven to the edge by that industry’s insistence on treating any material about race as something to be consumed in an act of educational penance. He’s also someone whose habitual aloofness extends to his relationship with his mother, who lives alone in his childhood home in Boston, as well as his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), a doctor at a women’s-health clinic, and his brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), a plastic surgeon whose delayed coming out has led him to some heavy partying.

An early scene of bantering between a reunited Monk and Lisa is so wry and comfortable, with Wright and Ross terrific at showing flashes of the kids these two characters once were, that I almost wished the film were focused just on the Ellison family, whose siblings are grappling with having to inherit the roles of adults. The secret of American Fiction is that it’s stealthily the thing Monk longs for — a portrait of Black characters who are not representatives of inner-city oppression, who have upper-middle-class lives and who grew up with a beach house on Martha’s Vineyard, and who have their own richly delineated set of problems. The literary-world jabs are sharp and funny, but it’s the rueful family dynamics that make the film rewarding, as well as the performances. Like its fellow fall release Dream Scenario, it owes a debt to Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. And eventually, it backs itself into a corner, ending with a “what can you do” shrug. But Wright’s turn in particular, as the sad sack who has both a point and his own respectability hangups, lingers in the mind. Monk is a guy who’s so sure he has seen it all that he can’t acknowledge his own blind spots.

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We’ll Be Talking About This Book-World Satire All Fall