American Fiction opened in December 2023 to great expectations. Could first-time director Cord Jefferson successfully bring the wit, satire and parody of the 2001 novel to the screen? He could, and did.
American author Percival Everett published the novel Erasure in 2001, for which he received the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Cord Jefferson wrote for television series Watchmen and Succession before he took on the challenge of adapting Erasure for the big screen. However, the Everett novel was only one of the inspirations for Jefferson’s award-winning film. His own experiences as a writer of color helped to shape the script.
In American Fiction the audience is introduced to an upper class family of color, a household headed by a medical doctor father. All his children earned doctorates, but our protagonist (played by Jeffrey Wright) chose the arts over medicine. As a disgruntled intellectual author of books no one reads, Thelonius “Monk” Ellison develops a slow rising resentment of Black intellectuals who write shallow up-from-the-gutter novels without having lived the experience, and whose books are praised and elevated by white publishing houses.
Personal circumstances combine to take him over the edge in terms of writing, and one night he invites hilarious imaginary characters into his study and begins to write the ultimate ghetto novel under a pseudonym. He hands the manuscript to his agent as a joke, and is appalled when a major publishing house offers him more money than he ever received for his establishment fiction. Then the fun begins.
Actor Jeffrey Wright gets completely under the skin of angry novelist Monk, and transmits the frustration of a man who touched all the right bases, was his late father’s favorite, and yet remains a relatively unknown novelist. Fascinating are the prickly conversations with his two siblings, struggles with his conscience, and physically putting himself into faux character as he plays the game of fresh meat for the always trolling publishing houses.
Despite the solid financial background in their upbringing, the Ellison family faces harsh realities: the consequences of a toxic divorce and challenges faced by an aging parent, among others. These situations tempt Thelonius “Monk” Ellison into the land of literary make believe.
The film has plenty of chuckles and a few gasps
The film has plenty of chuckles and a few gasps as we experience beautifully executed examples of cluelessness in communication — between family members, with a new girlfriend, with fellow academics, with potential publishers.
Highly entertaining, sharp and witty, with sometimes stunning examples of how race still plays a factor in people’s perceptions of one another. And until the very end, the audience does not know which direction Monk’s wild literary ride will take.