Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon Studios MGM releases the film in theaters on Friday, December 15 with expansion to follow on Friday, December 22.

In “American Fiction,” the comic and tragic go hand in hand. Each moment is layered with meaning, socially, politically, and emotionally. The film, based on the novel “Erasure” by writer and professor Percival Everett, is part satire, part romantic comedy, all combined with thoughtful family drama. With an all-star cast and talented writer at the helm, “American Fiction” is poised to become an audience favorite.

The film tells the story of Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), an English professor and unsuccessful author suffering from writer’s block and explosive bouts of rage that alienate him from other people. After making one of his students cry, he’s forced to take a break from teaching and return to Boston to focus on his writing and reconnect with his family. Thelonious, or Monk as he’s affectionately called, has been avoiding his loved ones, living across the country in California and rarely calling.

Once he arrives he finds his mother (Leslie Uggams) losing her memory and both his siblings Lisa and Clifford (played by Tracee Ellis Ross and Sterling K. Brown, respectively) divorced. It’s a family of sad, Black intellectuals, all better at articulating their pain than doing anything about it. The family’s patriarch has died before the story begins, but his specter looms large over the family. The one happy face Monk sees is Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), the family’s devoted cook and housekeeper.

Shortly after he arrives, a tragedy forces Monk to put down roots and support his family in ways he’s never done before. In the process he meets Coraline (Erika Alexander), a beautiful lawyer who lives next door and is one of the few fans of Monk’s writing. But Monk feels out of place among people and struggles to connect. Making matters worse, his mother’s condition only exacerbates his need to write a successful book to provide him with the money to support her. 

Making matters still more worse, there’s a new bestseller out from young Black author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), whose success confounds and angers Monk. Ranting about the devolution of African-American fiction, Monk is inspired to write a book that — to him — is intentionally offensive and badly written. He encourages his publicist (John Ortiz) to send out the book, titled “My Pafology,” and see if anyone is stupid enough to buy it. Surprisingly, a publishing house calls his bluff, offering a generous sum and fast-tracking the novel for a film adaptation. Adopting the pseudonym Stegg R. Leigh, Monk poses as a working-class fugitive writing the true story of his life.

As the deception spirals out of control, Monk is forced to confront his misanthropy and come to terms with his fraught relationship to American Blackness. In the tradition of films like Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” and Robert Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle,” “American Fiction” aims to be a darkly comic exploration of the way fiction and media commodifies the Black experience, reducing it to easily consumable caricature.

In his feature directorial debut, Cord Jefferson crafts a film that looks and moves like the independent dramas of the early to mid 2000s, most notably Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys” and the work of Alexander Payne. Adopting a more conventional structure than Everett’s more experimental novel, Jefferson uses “American Fiction” to tell a story of a man whose ego is his worst enemy.

While “Erasure,” published in 2001, was partially a response to the popular urban novels of the late ’90s like Sapphire’s “Push,” “American Fiction” takes place in the present day where there is constant lip service being paid to diversity and celebrating an array of Black stories. This, unfortunately, robs the story of some of its bite because we know things aren’t quite the same as they were then.

This is exemplified in a key scene in which Sintara is seen reading Lauren Michele Jackson’s critical nonfiction book “White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue… And Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.” What is the film trying to tell us by showing the same woman who wrote a novel called “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto” is now reading that book? And how does the existence of that book in this film’s universe line up with Monk’s criticism of the state of popular Black writing and the general discourse around authenticity? The intention there feels ill-defined. 

While the literary world has become more supportive of a diversity of Black voices and welcoming of Black intellectual rigor on the page, it’s Black representation in television and film that has become the subject of criticism in recent years. “American Fiction” addresses that comically, having Monk occasionally turn on the television and be met by a barrage of dramatic Black stories of pain, violence and despair. Recent films and programs such as “Queen & Slim,” “Antebellum,” “Alice,” Amazon Prime’s “Them,” and HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” are ripe for dissection. But for the most part, “American Fiction” keeps its critical eye focused on the gullible nature and patronizing tone of white people who are incapable of appreciating or engaging with Black intellectualism in any meaningful way. 

The film fares better as a family drama, anchored by funny and extremely charismatic performances from Wright, Brown, and Alexander. Brown is especially hilarious as a man going through some very significant mid-life changes. In a cinematic landscape dominated by white-centric dramedies, “American Fiction” feels like a breath of fresh air. Veteran actresses Uggams and Taylor are both given time to shine, and their presence gives the film its emotional core. And though her role is somewhat small, Ross gives a warm, memorable performance.

Ultimately, “American Fiction” is an impressive debut from Jefferson, who has seamlessly made the leap from the small to big screen with a strong comedic voice and characters crafted with empathy and care. While the satire could have been sharper and more complex, the film is mostly saved by its humor. It’s difficult to be both a cutting satire and a crowd-pleaser at the same time, but Jefferson splits the difference, leaving us with a film much like Monk himself — flawed, but oddly lovable.

Grade: B+

“American Fiction” world premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released in the U.S. by MGM later in 2023.

Leave a comment