February 26, 2024

Film Review: American Fiction

5 Stars
By Joseph Beyer | Feb. 10, 2024

Reading society like a book and reflecting our collective discrimination back at us, American Fiction is a remarkable first-time feature that is simultaneously one of the softest and loudest films of the year. (It has been nominated for Best Picture, among other Oscars honors.)

Soft as in the absolutely heart wrenching lead performance by actor Jeffrey Wright portraying Thelonious “Monk” Ellison: a tortured novelist with impostor syndrome desperate to make his mark on the world while fighting to earn his family’s respect.

Loud as in the multitude of themes and stereotypes the film explores and the ultimately giant nature of its commentary and heart.

Directed with a remarkably confident hand by newcomer Cord Jefferson, American Fiction is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, a scathing portrait of the publishing world that becomes even more so in this post-woke cinematic retelling.

We follow Monk the Writer through the familiar early territory of disgruntled service in academia, publishing rejections, and the soft shoulder of his literary agent Arthur (played beautifully by actor John Ortiz).

But when Monk’s professional jealousy of a bestselling author gets the best of him, Arthur becomes his co-conspirator in a contemporary comedy of deceit. Together, they deliver the book world exactly what they think it wants when Monk pretends to become Stagg R. Leigh, a convict and outsider artist who takes the publishing industry by storm with his raw and racial “authenticity.”

Far from alienating readers and the literary world, Leigh becomes a star, and Monk must decide how far to take the stunt…and how much he really desires this success.

If American Fiction were just a high-concept satire, I doubt it would be affecting audiences so powerfully. What makes the film so unforgettable are the many-layered personal and family struggles that take place in the background, struggles of common humanity that are powerful enough to get under your skin and into your psyche.

Kudos to casting director Jennifer Euston who has put together one of the best ensembles this year, starring actors Erika Alexander, Tracee Ellis Ross, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Leslie Uggams, and comedienne Issa Rae in a turn to serious you won’t see coming. Sterling K. Brown’s Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance as Monk’s brother is well deserved.

So too is praise for the distinct soundtrack by composer Laura Karpman, who uses the subtle blue notes of jazz to accentuate Monk’s literal and figurative loneliness.

While it’s perfectly understandable that MGM Studios (now owned by Amazon) would pump up the comedic elements of American Fiction for marketing and trailers, I think you’ll be genuinely surprised by the sophistication and nuance of a story you may think you already understand. The film has so much more to say about life than just a playful and subversive commentary on race relations.

American Fiction is that rare blend of talents coming together perfectly and existing only and uniquely within this one story world—our world, that familiar and imperfect one.

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