AMERICAN FICTION | USA | 2023 | 117m | English
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, Skyler Wright
Directed By: Cord Jefferson
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Wright) is a respected author and professor of English literature. But his impatience with his students’ cultural sensitivities is threatening his academic standing, while his latest novel is failing to attract publishers; they claim Monk’s writing “isn’t Black enough.” He travels to his hometown of Boston to participate in a literary festival where all eyes are on the first-time author of a bestseller titled We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, a book Monk dismisses as pandering to readers seeking stereotypical stories of Black misery. Meanwhile, Monk’s family experiences tragedy, and his ailing mother requires a level of care neither he nor his trainwreck of a brother (Sterling K. Brown) can afford.
One night, in a fit of spite, Monk concocts a pseudonymous novel embodying every Black cliché he can imagine. His agent submits it to a major publisher who immediately offers the biggest advance Monk’s ever seen. As the novel is rushed to the printers and Hollywood comes courting, Monk must reckon with a monster of his own making.
TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
RATING 4 out of 5
American Fiction features some of the best laugh out loud moments of the year thanks to Cord Jefferson’s hilarious screenplay, but beyond that, the film is an insightful discussion of creative integrity in a product based system and brought to life by an excellent cast, resulting in one of the most unique and enjoyable films of the fall festival circuit.
This year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival was all about feature directorial debuts, whether it be from stars like Anna Kendrick and Finn Wolfhard, or talent making the jump from television like Chloe Domont. Joining this incredible lineup is writer Cord Jefferson, best known for his work on hit shows such as Watchmen and The Good Place, making his directorial debut with this year’s People’s Choice Award winning film: American Fiction. Through his writing and direction, Jefferson has adapted Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, and crafted a biting social commentary on the perception of African American characters in popular culture, and the entertainment industry wanting a specific product rather than allowing creative freedom from its creators, in this hilarious must see crowd pleaser.
Author Thelonious Monk is annoyed that his latest novel has failed to garner attention from publishers, who are more attracted to novels perpetuating stereotypes about the African American experience. Deciding to play their game, Monk writes a novel catering to these clichés under a pseudonym, which becomes an overnight sensation, forcing Monk to re-evaluate his perspective on writing and the novel he has created.
There is no doubt that the strongest element of American Fiction is Cord Jefferson’s screenplay. Right from the first scene, he sets the satirical tone for the film, letting the audience know what they are in for. It’s razor sharp, highly intelligent, and down right hilarious as he builds the commentary around what society wants as a whole for its stories about African Americans, and the frustration to African Americans about this. Society has boxed African American stories through a stereotypical lens for decades and continues to want the exact same story, but as seen through Jeffrey Wright’s Thelonious it's a frustrating expectation for artists who want to tell authentic, nuanced stories about their people and culture. It captures the struggles of living a creative life, and comments on how the industry has a base product they want, which can be challenging for those creative people who have aspirations to tell more meaningful stories that go beyond that standard product. Cord carefully deconstructs the stereotypes enforced by society, utilizing satirical humour to prompt a reaction within viewers, allowing the discussion this film will no doubt generate to stick with viewers and hopefully move society forward from these stereotypical views we are ingrained in.
The film is at its best while working with the satire, and while it does divulge into Thelonious’s personal life and presents characters as these nuanced individuals that Thelonious wants to tell stories about, the film does not spend enough time with these characters to fully develop their plotlines. These subplots are a necessary and good addition to the film, as they show the characters and their nuances as Thelonious wants them to be written, but you need to spend more time with them to truly get a sense of who they are beyond the plot point they are part of.
There is no shortage of talented actors in these supporting roles, with the likes of Sterling K. Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, and Leslie Uggams to name a few, all of whom make the most of their time and dazzle in their supporting roles, especially Brown and Rae. Rae reading from her character’s novel “We’s Live in Da Ghetto” and talking about the importance of it has to be one of the funniest scenes I have seen all year in a film that I won’t soon forget. However, it’s not enough for these actors to truly find their characters, allow the audience to understand them on a deeper level, and to bring them to life to make their subplots more engaging.
Leading the film is the always great Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious, anchoring the film with his cynicism. Wright has always given brilliant yet quiet performances in all of his roles over the years, which makes him perfect for the role of Thelonious. The dryness Wright brings to the role makes the cynicism believable, which amplifies the satirical tone of the film. At the same time, Wright instills Thelonious with an unwavering passion for his true artistic expression which allows the audience to experience the creative’s struggle in an industry where creativity should not exist as freely as it should be allowed to. It's a nuanced performance from Wright, but it carries Cord’s screenplay from start to finish, ensuring that every satirical moment is laugh out loud funny while ensuring that the emotion and messaging of the story is not lost in the midst of the laughter.
Winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival is no easy feat. All winners are truly great films, featuring strong storytelling and performances, and American Fiction is no exception. Cord Jefferson not only makes a terrific directorial debut, but his insightful and hilariously satirical screenplay makes for an outrageously fun time even with its minor shortcomings, all held together by a great performance from Jeffrey Wright, making American Fiction a true crowd pleaser.