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'American Fiction' Review

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November 1, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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American Fiction screened at the 2023 Twin Cities Film Fest. MGM releases it in limited theaters on December 15, followed by a nationwide expansion on December 22.

American Fiction is this year’s Triangle of Sadness: a social satire that somewhat succeeds because it’s undeniably hilarious and that it’s practically shooting fish in a barrel. Both films also claimed ironic victory when making their world premieres at their respective festivals. Triangle of Sadness, a brutal takedown of the uber-rich, nabbed the Palme d’Or at the exclusive black-tie Cannes Film Festival, while American Fiction, an examination of the reduction of the Black experience by white people, won the People’s Choice Award at the mostly-white Toronto International Film Festival.

We’s Lives in Da Ghetto is a bestselling book in the world that Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) inhabits. Its author, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), was born to lawyer parents and received an Ivy-league education, making her claims about the novel’s poverty-stricken protagonists being modeled after “her people” dubious at best. This is all happening while Monk can’t find anyone to publish his newest book, another in a long line of rigorously intellectual academia on Black life in America. 

There’s also Monk’s mother (Leslie Uggams), who’s beginning to show signs of rapidly progressive dementia. Being a literature professor at West Coast University doesn’t pay enough to cover her medical costs, and neither does having an unsold manuscript, so, in a drunken stupor, Monk decides to write the most panderingly simplistic “Black novel” that he can. Predictably, the trashy piece of work is a sensation to all the white liberal publicists. Six-digit offers come flying through the door, along with movie deals. Becoming part of the problem is now making Monk extremely wealthy. Does he continue the charade, or do his morals persuade him to pull the plug?

Spike Lee’s Bamboozled would be a more literal comparison to what writer/director Cord Jefferson is aiming for in his debut feature film. There are also several connected elements between this and Charlie Day’s Fool’s Paradise from earlier this year, which aimed at Hollywood. Much of the satire there and here revolves around the protagonists doing/saying something ludicrously stupid and, to their bewilderment, being met with immense applause from the gullible idiots. The world happens around them, and they react with disdain. We’re in on the joke with them, pointing and laughing at the idiots while thinking there’s no way we’re like them.

Unfortunately, like Day, Jefferson doesn’t seem to have much to say outside of the obvious as Monk digs himself deeper into a hole of lies. It’s correct in everything it’s saying, but everything it’s correct about has already been agreed upon by the audience that will watch it. It’s nearly impossible to start a conversation when most everyone is already on the same page and your material is too neatly packaged to confront the ideals of anyone on the other side. What’s missing is Spike Lee’s ability to provoke and make you uncomfortable, as that’s when you’re at your most critically minded.

There’s also the presence of several other subplots along with the ailing mother. Monk strikes up a charming, yet frustratingly thin, romance with his mother’s neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander). Monk’s erratic younger brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), who just came out of the closet, is also in town. He isn’t much help with their mother’s medical needs, but he does know how to show Monk the error of his ways. None of these plotlines coalesce neatly, and very few of them reach a satisfying conclusion. Ironically, Jefferson launched his career as a magazine editor, a role sorely needed here.

Still, Jefferson has made a very funny movie littered with many witty one-liners. And he’s given a substantial leading role to the great Jeffrey Wright, who hasn’t received top billing in nearly three decades. Just as he’s proved in the two Wes Anderson films he’s been in, Wright shows an incredible talent for wordplay and physical comedy. Brown and John Ortiz, playing Monk’s agent, often threaten to steal the show with their exuberance.

American Fiction may be a victim of expectations as winning the People’s Choice Award at TIFF certainly raised the bar. Whether that’s fair or not is a different story. All I know is that I can only write about what I felt, which was slight disappointment mixed with great optimism about what Jefferson will do next.

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