The publishing satire is a comedic and dramatic triumph
The Black experience has often been enclosed in a space of exploitation and trauma that seems to delight white audiences. Be it slave stories, crime, or other ways structural racism appears in headlines, films and books have been hyper focused on showcasing this aspect of blackness in America. This has pigeon-holed black artists into being solely defined by their race and traumatic associations to it, such is the subject satirized and ridiculed in American Fiction (2023).
American Fiction follows author Thelonious “Monk” Ellis (Jeffrey Wright), whose current books on philosophy and other subjects don’t sell well as they aren’t “black enough,” according to his agent (John Ortiz). To mock the absurd types of stories publishers are looking for, Monk writes a stereotypical black story of crime in a ravaged neighborhood. To his dismay this book becomes incredibly sought for and successful.
Cord Jefferson makes his directorial debut with American Fiction after cutting his teeth in television with the likes of Watchmen (2019) and The Good Place (2016-2020). He also adapted the screenplay from the book “Erasure” by Percival Everett. Jefferson finds the perfect balance between satire and social commentary; however, he also doesn’t let American Fiction become solely defined as such. The film spends much more time and is an equally successful as a family drama and character study. This element proves the richest of American Fiction as we see a privileged family undergo hardships yet not be defined by them.
Jefferson, like many great writers and filmmakers, has American Fiction work not so much as a film offering comforting answers, but rather leaves questions lingering for viewers to discuss. As such, the social elements of the narrative follow your home, having you ponder where the guilt for the perpetuation of such simplistic racial depictions lies; is it the author, the publisher, or the audience? This ambiguity also is transferred into the characters, with Wright playing a complicated and flittingly unlikeable protagonist who doesn’t get all the answers to his life’s worries by the film’s end.
Jefferson brings a challenging role to Wright, who has been a constant shining supporting player, but gets a much-deserved chance as the lead in American Fiction. Wright finds the difficult balance of uptight intellectual with a likeability that has you buy his romance with his neighbor (Erika Alexander) at the same time as he alienates his siblings (Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown). I would have been more than happy to simply see the familial drama sans the social commentary, as it proves an intriguing character study into the consuming nature of selfishness and ego.
Certain beats of American Fiction stray too close to the melodramatic and narratively convenient, this is done to sets up social points Jefferson wants to make. It brings viewers out of the personal story of Monk, unveiling staging elements of the story. This dilution of character elements, which help make a story more memorable.
In the end, American Fiction proves a successful satire of the exploitation of certain black stories for the public. Jefferson’s directorial debut delivers just the right amount of humor and commentary, while also focusing on a compelling family drama, which lets its talented cast and underappreciated lead performer shine. Certain veers towards melodrama cheapen the character journeys, but they thankfully don’t take away from American Fiction being one of the more thought-provoking and funny films of the year.