The opening night film for this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival was Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut, American Fiction, a hilarious and heartwarming tale of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a writer at a creative, professional, and personal crossroads. After an incident in which his educational use of a racial epithet upsets one of his white students (“With all due respect, Brittany, if I can get over it, so can you,” he tells her), he finds himself unceremoniously placed on leave. Soon a death in the family, an ailing mother (Leslie Uggams), and a newly out of the closet brother (Sterling K. Brown) brings he and his family together for the first time in a long time. This also means that financial pressures are mounting. Unfortunately for Monk, he can’t seem to sell a new novel. At least not one which meets his own exacting standards of quality.
His agent wants him to step off his high horse and write something marketable, but to Monk’s chagrin, what’s marketable happens to be tales of stereotypical Black trauma designed for white readers. As a goof, Monk bangs out a ‘marketable’ novel under a pen name, and wouldn’t you know if? It’s a hit.
What makes American Fiction such a rousing success is its masterful management of tones. Jefferson, helped by an excellent, jazzy score by Laura Karpman, is able to move fluidly between thoughtful drama and laugh-out-loud, character-centric comedy. The funnier moments never undercut or cheapen the drama, and the more emotional material carries weight without ever feeling heavy. This runs congruent with the themes of the film, namely that its characters are human beings, with personalities that run the full gamut of the human experience, rather than just acting as simple avatars for the curiosities and hang-ups of many in the audience.
Jefferson’s film takes a soft touch with its approach to race relations, pointing his inquiries less at the individuals and more at the systems in play which cause individuals to divide and lean into stereotypes. He shows that no race is a monolith — no two experiences identical. This results in a film that has a biting wit and a clever satirical angle, but which maintains universal appeal and relatability. A scene in which Monk enters a book store and moves a stack of his earlier novels from the “African American” section to the broader “fiction” section drives this point home. The clerk telling him that no one in the store decides where the books go — it’s a corporate decree — says the rest.
Wright, perhaps my favorite actor working today, is expectedly fantastic. The depth he gives to Monk is remarkable yet understated. Again, he feels like a real guy. His stoicism runs opposite his more bombastic brother, a character that Brown brings to life with humor and gravitas. Kudos as well to a scene stealing Erika Alexander as Monk’s potential new love interest, and to Raymond Anthony Thomas*, who adds considerable heart as an aspirational older man for our protagonist.
American Fiction is based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett.
*check out Andy Mitton’s The Harbinger for another memorable performance by Thomas
Directed by Cord Jefferson
Written by Cord Jefferson, Percival Everett
Starring Jeffrey Wright, John Ortiz, Issa Rae, Myra Lucretia Taylor
Rated R, 117 minutes