American Fiction

Posted on December 17, 2023 at 4:25 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some drug use, sexual references and brief violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs, references to drug dealers
Violence/ Scariness: Brief graphic violence, reference to suicide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2023

Copyright Amazon 2023
“American Fiction,” from first-time writer/director Cord Jefferson and based on the 2001 novel Erasure, by Percival Everett, is a biting satire of just about every aspect of American life, especially academia, publishing, and racism. It is also a heartfelt story about family connections and the conflicts that strain them. It is provocative, funny, and searingly smart. In my opinion, it is the best film of the year.

What’s remarkable is that Everett’s story is even more timely now than it was 22 years ago. Indeed, life imitates art, as Jefferson has spoken about how this story about a frustrated Black academic writes a satiric take-down of the kinds of Black representation that pander to white audiences had the same kind of difficulty getting this film made that the fictional professor had in finding a publisher for his book about classical Greek literature.

That professor, like the man who created him, has a literary name. He is Thelonious Ellison, nicknamed “Monk” after the musician Thelonius Monk. He likes to think of himself as living in a non-racial or post-racial world. He feigns ignorance when his class objects to his writing the title of a Flannery O’Connor story that includes the n-word on the blackboard, and frustrated when he gets in trouble for it. It infuriates Monk that his books about classical literature are shelved with Black books. It infuriates him even more when his agent, Arthur (a terrific John Ortiz of “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Ad Astra”) tells him publishers want him to write a “Black book.” “It is a Black book! I’m Black and it’s a book!” Monk says.

Monk’s relationship with his family is strained. His sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a doctor, exhausted from the stress of her job and caring for their mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), who is experiencing cognitive decline. His brother Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), also a doctor, is dealing with his own domestic upheaval as he wife left him after she found him having sex with a man. After a shocking loss, Monk has to take responsibility for Agnes, and he needs money.

Impetuously, Monk quickly bangs out a book he titles My Pathology. No, he corrects it, or un-corrects it, My Pafology, presumably a first-person narrative by a gang member and drug dealer known as Stagg R. Leigh (the name inspired y the 19th century pimp described in the classic song). The book is immediately snapped up by thrilled white editors at a top publishing house who chirp at him that they hope to get it out by Juneteenth. And then a white Hollywood director is interested.

Monk, his mother, and the family’s long-time housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor) visit the family’s vacation home on the water, and Monk meets the woman who owns the house across the street, a lawyer named Coraline (Erika Alexander). The film, like Monk’s book, has a heightened tone, but Alexander’s Coraline brings a grounding reality to the story as both the heart and the moral center. A scene with Coraline, Monk, and Clifford is one of the highlights of a consistently outstanding film.

Indeed, every performance is superb and Jefferson’s exceptional control of tone somehow makes the heightened portions and the more realistic elements work seamlessly together. Another outstanding scene has Monk talking to Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) as a sophisticated author whose “poverty porn” book, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto is a critical and commercial success. Taylor makes the loyal family retainer role fully complex, and we are grateful to see that the screenplay gives her a chance to have her own life and dreams.

This is a movie that cares about all of its characters and about the pernicious effects of racism, including the unacknowledged racism of people who consider themselves free from bigotry. Jefferson knows the hardest truths reach us through humor, and this movie is filled with wonderfully funny moments. It is only later that we realize just how compelling its messages are.

Parents should know that this film has constant strong language, sexual references, drinking and drugs and a fictional drug dealer, and a brief scene of graphic violence.

Family discussion: Which book of Monk’s would you want to read? Do you agree with Coraline about not judging people on their worst day?

If you like this, try: “Dear White People” and Percival Everett’s books. And for a real-life conversation about these issues, see the Jay-Z documentary, “Fade to Black.” As I wrote about it in my book 101 Must-See Movie Moments:

Backstage, aspiring young performers talk about the conflict they feel knowing that in order to be successful they must pander to stereotypes about “gangstas” instead of addressing a wider range of issues or exploring their own experiences and feelings.
Jay-Z begins by saying that he thinks the violence and drug problems of the inner city are not as bad as they were when he was younger and that it takes people speaking out against it to make a difference. But, he says, it is not his style to do so. “You’re not that type of rapper,” one of his friends agrees. “For two lines out of a 60-minute tape,” he says, “for 30 seconds, I felt like saying something, to speak on what’s going on in the hood, should I not do that? Should I ignore those feelings?”

Young hip-hop artists who want to be as successful as Jay-Z then talk about their conflicts. “You rapping on shooting and killing people,” Jay-Z says to one of them. “They the one who buy it. That’s what people want to hear,” the other responds. “Truthfully, it’s whack. I’ve been feeling that way, too. I don’t be wanting to do that. It seems that sometimes that’s all the n*** want to hear.” Another one advises him to “be you,” asking “Why would you write a rhyme that you don’t want to write?” But he does not think his music will sell if he tries something different, even if it is more honest.

Jay-Z tells the documentary cameraman to focus on him so he can speak directly to us in the audience. “See what you, the public, did to rappers? They scared to be theyselves. N*** don’t think that people gonna accept them as theyself.”

It is as powerful and telling a moment about art, mortality, culture, and identity as has ever been filmed.

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