Film: American Fiction

Beyond its Oscar buzz, I went into American Fiction (2023) cold, and it turned out to be one of those unexpectedly glorious surprises that restores your faith in the whole business. Based on a novel by Percival Everett, the film involves jaded writer/professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (a superb Jeffrey Wright), who is forced to take a leave of absence from his university just in time for a Boston book festival. That festival happens to be near his family home, placing him reluctantly in their proximity just as its fortunes take a downward turn, just in time to coincide with the professional turbulence of his own life. While coping with the crisis, Monk—an obscure literary writer whose recent work has been deemed “not Black enough” by the publishing world—pens a stereotypical Black American novel under a pen name. He knows it’s hot garbage, but demands his agent Arthur (John Ortiz) send it out anyway, if only to stick his thumb in the eye of the establishment. His joke backfires spectacularly when the book turns into a smashing success that will rescue him from desperate straights—but will it be at the expense of his integrity?

Equal parts smart comedy, stirring drama, and incisive social commentary, American Fiction is seamlessly enjoyable. It’s a real feather in the cap for first-time director Cord Jefferson, who as a screenwriter has built an impressive list of credits that includes The Good Place, Master of None, Station Eleven, and Watchmen. He brings a similar wit and intelligence to his adaptation here, setting up a terrific cast to succeed. Wright is perfect in the lead, providing a sympathetic and amusing mix of idealism and cynicism, while his co-stars—Erika Alexander, Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross, Myra Lucretia Taylor, and Leslie Uggams, among others—are all excellent. It even manages a reasonable job of depicting the publishing world, which Hollywood can’t often manage; it’s not flawless, but respectable and witty. Overall, a bracing, thought-provoking entertainment.

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