As much as writer/director Cord Jefferson—who has writing credits for nigh-universally-loved television programs like The Good Place and Watchmen—crafts a love letter to writing and books in his debut feature film American Fiction, he also builds a strong case for the ways in which the publishing industry is broken.
Jefferson, in his adaptation of the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, coaxes from Jeffery Wright one of the finest performances of the Westworld alum’s career. The film offers a scathing takedown of pseudo-intellectualism, the politics of creativity and the frustrating way that there’s no good solution to either.
Wright plays Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a middle-aged overachiever type and novelist with middling successes in the midst of a forced leave of absence from his California teaching position. The unplanned vacation happens after Ellison comes to verbal blows with a young white student over the usage of the N-word in Southern literature. “If I got over it, you can, too,” he tells the student. Cue trip to Boston for a writing conference—the same city from which Monk hails; cue unplanned family reunion.
Jefferson’s astute voice finds the most unsettling yet relatable ground as Monk navigates his rapidly changing family dynamics. His father is long dead; his mother (the legend Leslie Uggams) is succumbing to the early stages of Alzheimer’s; his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) is divorced and broke; his brother (Sterling K. Brown) is, too, while coming out of the closet. And still Monk’s books don’t sell—or even appear in the right section at the bookstore (they’re lit, dammit, not African American Studies).
Monk jokingly pens the first chapter of a book, My Pafology, wherein a combination of vernacular absurdity and a deliberately myopic view of the Black experience come together to delight the majority white publishing house execs who’ve long left Monk’s previous works on read. So it’s under a pseudonym that he finally starts to make the money he desperately needs to take care of his mother. Hilarity and the sadsies ensue.
Wright’s performance as the acerbic writer will surely be remembered (Oscar buzz!), as will the rotating cast of supporting players who ebb and flow throughout the film with almost startling familial authenticity—who else could drive us so crazy but make us love them so deeply? Jefferson’s writing and directing, however, are the crowning achievements of American Fiction. He’s got a knack for showing rather than telling, from the subtlety of Monk’s drinking problem and arrogance issues to the sad notion that aging sometimes means doing what we have to do when we know a lot better. And losing people.
American Fiction, then, is at turns hysterically funny and gut-wrenchingly sad in moments that feel universal, sure, but particularly in those that hold a mirror up to its audience. Some will call it woke while others will decry its anti-wokeness. Some will see it for what it is, though—a movie about how family is hard, how writing might be harder and how sometimes things just feel empty no matter how much we try. But we do it anyway.
+Flawless writing; triumphant performance from Wright
-Underused supporting players
Directed by Jefferson
With Wright, Uggams, Ross and Brown
Violet Crown, Center for Contemporary Arts, R, 117 min.