What are we looking for in stories? Is it for entertainment? Challenged? Moved? Placated? These are just a few of the numerous questions presented by writer-director Cord Jefferson’s fantastic feature debut American Fiction, in which the great Jeffrey Wright plays Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, a gifted and intellectual novelist who is having trouble selling his newest book. Despite having previously published praised work, no publishers are interested in more from him. Even when he attends a writer’s festival in his hometown of Boston, there is a pitiful turnout.
What’s the reason? Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), a big new author, has launched a novel, and everyone went to visit her instead. Monk comes in to hear her read an excerpt from the book and becomes visibly disturbed by how he sees it as a stereotype-ridden flattening of Black life, so he resolves to create a similar narrative under a pseudonym to show a point. He is successful, but not in the way he expected. What he expected to be an overblown satire of such stories has become the most popular writing he’s ever done. Monk, too, demanded too much from those who read it.
Thus starts a fascinating voyage not just into the world of publishing, but also into our own minds. This is not a film that is interested in appeasement or hand-holding, since it goes straight to the heart of what modern America looks like. The commodification and minimising of “diverse stories” might come from individuals who appear to be raising different perspectives but are actually simply clapping themselves on the back. The way American Fiction examines this is a beautifully withering sense of humour as all of the conversations Monk begins to have around the book he created as a joke see it spiral out of his control.
Wright’s acting has a witty wit that hardens into bitterness and final resignation. It provides for a complex character study that pays attention to the minor aspects of life while also eliciting big observational humour. Monk’s connections with his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and brother Clifford (Sterling K. Brown) feel completely realised, despite the fact that they are ephemeral. The performances bring to life a complete past that shapes all of their interactions, particularly when tragedy comes and Monk is forced to care for his sick mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams), with the lie presenting a possible redemption.
These familial sufferings provide the plot with not just the motivation to continue, but also the heart to make it all resonate. Monk continues to deceive about the book despite his doubts since he needs the money to try to look after his mother nearly entirely on his own. All of the Ellison siblings have fallen into terrible times, so why wouldn’t he take advantage of these publications to do some good? This is essentially the point made by his buddy and agent Arthur (John Ortiz), who believes in him more than most others in the world. The sequences they share, making calls to publishers where Monk must continue with the performance that becomes increasingly absurd, are among the most amusing in the film.
There is a careful balance created because there are not just many wonderful lines, but also one broad shot where we see posters on the wall of a publisher that provokes the largest chuckle. When Monk gets fed up with the whole affair and tries to sabotage it by insisting that the title of the book be altered to simply the word “FUCK,” he is astounded that even this isn’t enough to stop it. While ludicrous, the humour is anchored on reality regarding what tales will be promoted. After all, we live in a society where the incredibly deceptive The Blind Side was lauded despite being one of the worst films ever created. Why? Because it is easy to consume and allows certain demographics to feel completely catered to.
All of this is conveyed in some fantastic scenes, one of which has none other than Keith David bringing Monk’s writing to life. As he types, the writer feasts on each cliché with gusto before turning to his maker and proclaiming, “I can do better than that.” For a brief minute, it appears that even this imaginary figure does not want to do this cliched routine.
Though such innovative moments aren’t as prevalent in the rest of the film, this is more than acceptable because everything else takes us deeper into Monk’s existence. All of the supporting characters are superb, particularly Brown, who delivers another spectacular performance following this year’s Biosphere. Erika Alexander, who plays Monk’s neighbour Coraline, is an important contrast to him, despite portions of her character being undeveloped.
As the two develop a relationship, her admiration of his books exposes his anxieties and desire for affirmation, which may lead to outbursts of coldness towards her when she confronts him instead. Monk is a difficult guy, full of inconsistencies that he must now address both emotionally and professionally, but he is also very human. The film about the narrative he’s telling is as much about him as it is about the larger publishing world with which he is increasingly forced to cope.
As this all becomes more complicated, Monk must decide how far he is willing to go. Without going too far, there are several doors that it ends up peeping through without truly committing to. Some of this causes a gap, but that is by purpose since it is evident that there isn’t a completely happy conclusion in this narrative. The film’s protagonist, the Monk, who began as a likeable cynic who noticed the world’s problems, has now become even more naturally disillusioned with it. Though his composing the narrative was a joke that referred to a basic lack of trust in the world, it also reflected the tiniest glimmer of hope that people would recognise the sham. Even that spark seemed to have gone by the end.
It adds to an already sombre plot since there is a genuine feeling of loss despite all the deserved silliness. There were many individuals Monk lost, both through the unanticipated agonies of life and some of his own deeds, but there is something more. He gave individuals more credit than they deserved, and it backfired on him. This may be a difficult pill for him and us to take, with one final glance exchanged with a man at the conclusion driving this point home, yet it is accurate. Though Monk’s audience was seeking a deception, this film does not let them off the hook that easily.