Jeffrey Wright’s frustrated writer finds accidental success with a book he wrote as a joke. Here’s our American Fiction review.
Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut American Fiction, based on Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, is a sizzling look at race as well as the publishing industry. The film stirred up a lot of emotions in me; shame, excitement, glee, confusion. Above all, I was impressed at how confidently Jefferson handled the tricky task of making an entertaining film with a message.
Jeffrey Wright plays Thelonius ‘Monk’ Ellison, a writer and professor who’s increasingly frustrated by the current state of literature and the publishing world. His previous books, while critically acclaimed, haven’t exactly been best-sellers. Monk gets even more frustrated when he notices the critical and commercial success of Sintara Golden’s (Issa Rae) new novel, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, which includes every known stereotype of Black people in America.
In response, Monk furiously writes a similar novel in anger, intending it as a joke, but to his amazement, it becomes an instant hit on publication. At the same time, Monk battles with personal tragedies and family issues as well as a budding relationship with a neighbour, played by Erika Alexander.
The subject matter at hand is pretty serious, but what’s most surprising about American Fiction is just how funny it is. Jefferson excels at balancing the inherent darkness of the story with a light touch, but he also never lets us forget that this is a piercing critique of racial stereotypes in literature.
Wright is nothing short of spectacular. He often pops up in a variety of roles, and the films tend to be better for his presence. There’s always a gravitas, a weight to his performances, but he’s rarely been awarded a role this juicy to dig his teeth into. Wright rightly bagged himself an Oscar nomination for his stellar work in American Fiction, too.
It helps that he is also surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. Sterling K Brown, also Oscar nominated for his turn, gets to flex his comedic muscles as Monk’s brother Cliff. While most of his scenes are played for jokes, Brown gets a particularly affecting scene later on where Cliff and Monk discuss their father’s suicide.
Tonal shifts like that should be jarring, but Jefferson makes the film flow smoothly from beginning to end. American Fiction ends up being a delightful mixture of emotions, but there are challenges too. Monk can be snooty, but Wright’s compelling choices in every scene make it impossible not to root for his character.
Adam Brody shows up as a hilariously slimy studio executive who wants to turn Monk’s book into a film. Leslie Uggams makes the most of her small part as Monk’s mother and Alexander works wonders with the role of Coraline that’s almost too thin to pull off. Coraline brings a lot of warmth to a film that can come across as a little cold and cynical at times.
But this is very much Wright and Jefferson’s vehicle. For a debut feature, American Fiction is confident, clever and hugely entertaining.
American Fiction is in UK cinemas 2nd February.