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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'American Fiction': Jeffrey Wright Gives a Career-Best Performance in Biting Satire

A lot has been said and written about proper representation of marginalized groups in media over the years. The concept itself has been a primary focus of many TV shows and films over the past decade or so, as many new projects seek to shine a light on more diverse stories. The fact that we are seeing an influx of media that is more inclusive of people of different identities could easily be seen as a win by some, but that isn't exactly true. While some projects do feature what could be considered "good representation", other projects tend to rely on stereotypes or pander to a wider audience. There are plenty of examples of this in regards to various groups, but Cord Jefferson's debut feature American Fiction centers on media about black people and how it is perceived by the public at large. Taking inspiration from Percival Everett's novel, Erasure, the film satirizes the types of black stories that are commonly told in mainstream media, and the response they are met with from mostly white audiences. But amidst the jabs it takes on the subject, it also unspools a rather compelling family drama, in turn acting against the type of representation it lampoons. This combines to make one of the most intriguing films of the year, and one of the most biting satires in a very long time.

Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a struggling writer who hasn't been able to get a book published in many years. While attending a literary convention, he happens upon a session that showcases an author named Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) who has skyrocketed to fame with the release of her novel We's Lives in the Ghetto. The book capitalizes on stereotypes and familiar tropes commonly seen in the media, and Monk finds himself completely fed up. In retaliation, he writes his own "black" novel that plays into the exact things he is tired of seeing. Despite writing this as more of a joke, the book grabs the attention of publishers, who smell a huge hit on their hands. This, along with Monk dealing with his own family issues, puts him in the middle of a difficult situation of whether to follow the book's success, or to stay true to himself.

The film, in addition to satirizing media trends regarding black people, functions as a meta-narrative on what makes a black story "black". So many (mostly white) people tend to think of specific films, stories, and other artworks as "black" specifically because they have certain tropes or are done in a specific style. A scene in which Monk sees a commercial for a TV channel that prides itself on showing films that are "authentic to the black experience", all while showing scenes from films that depict black people as slaves, criminals, or drug addicts, is just one of many moments that tackle this idea head-on. The plot line involving Monk's novel gaining more and more attention is the crux of this idea, as we see him having to constantly interact with a public who doesn't get that what he has written is a joke. But the other half of the film, which is more about Monk's family issues adds an interesting layer to the film's larger themes. We see Monk's life for what it is, as he is dealing with the death of a loved one, his mother's declining health, his brother's hedonistic ways, and a potential new romance, among other things, all throughout the film. The film's focus on this might confuse viewers who are going into this expecting it to lean more into the satire than it actually does, but it still serves its main objective so brilliantly. It shows that there is so much more to having a certain identity than what we commonly see in media, and that it is impossible to boil down an entire group's experience into a single work. There may be a certain level of truth to some narratives, but to call any of them a definitive account of "the [blank] experience" is inherently dishonest and discounts the voices and stories of those who have had different experiences.

I couldn't help but think about Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled while watching this. In that film, a television writer working at a major network is struggling to get any of his shows on the air. Out of frustration, he jokingly pitches a minstrel show to the head of the network. Much to his horror and chagrin, the network goes with the pitch and it becomes a huge hit. There are many parallels between Bamboozled and American Fiction, although they differ in terms of how they execute their ideas. Bamboozled features Spike Lee's more confrontational style, and is much more direct in how it depicts the general public's relationship to black media, and the racial implications that comes with it. American Fiction is much calmer by comparison, but still manages to feel biting. At a time where media appears to be more diverse, we still see some of the same tropes and stereotypes present in the mainstream, as well as viewers conflating them with being an authentic representation of a specific group of people. The moments where Monk is talking to publishers and other people who have read the book are clear examples of this, as most of them are well-meaning white people who see lifting the book up as a progressive act, as opposed to proliferating the same old notions that have been passed down in regards to black media. Both Bamboozled and American Fiction arrive at similar conclusions, as they both seek to inform the audience that there are so many more stories that can be told by black artists, specifically. By only responding to the more stereotypical stories that the mainstream gloms on to, we are only erasing the millions of other stories that could potentially impact the lives of many.

The way writer/director Cord Jefferson balances the family drama with the film's satirical comedy is quite impressive, even more so because this is his debut feature. But Jefferson has more than proven himself as a great storyteller with his work on TV series like The Good Place, Watchmen, and Station Eleven. Jefferson has a gift for writing about complex issues, and this film acts as a great showcase of that. He handles the film's themes of media representation perfectly, and helps the film fit the current social climate incredibly well. He does a great job of writing the film's core characters to feel genuine and lived-in, while making some of the more periphery characters feel somewhat heightened. These both help solidify the satirical half of the film and the more serious half of it, allowing the film to feel like a complete statement. I also love what he did with the ending, which diverts from the film's source material, but gives a final dig at black representation in the media that sums up the entire film beautifully. Jefferson definitely has a bright future ahead of him, and I am excited for what he does next.

Jeffrey Wright has long been one of my favorite actors, but his work from the past few years has been on another level. The past few years alone have yielded some excellent performances from him, but his turn as Monk might be his best yet. It's definitely a more internal, controlled performance, but it still leaves quite the impact. So much of the greatness of his work here comes from the way he responds to the world around him. He plays Monk with a scholarly air, and has a low-boiling anger to him that drives the character. He embodies the character so naturally, and you can't help but wonder if Wright sees quite a bit of himself in Monk. He does a great job of bringing Monk's inner conflicts to the surface in a way that doesn't feel telegraphed or melodramatic, and he is able to get so much from the character's understated nature. It's an incredible performance, and could be Wright's best work of his illustrious career.

The rest of the cast also shines, as the film features an exceptionally strong ensemble. Issa Rae does a great job of walking the tightrope between sincerity and smarm for much of the film, all before letting everything go in a great scene with Wright late in the film. Mary Lucretia Taylor and Raymond Anthony Thomas have the most heartfelt plot line of the film, and I could have honestly watched a full movie starring the two of their characters. Leslie Uggams gives a heartbreakingly good performance as Monk's mother, and is arguably the emotional crux of the whole film. I could go on about the entire cast and how great everyone is, but the two that definitely wowed me the most were Erika Alexander and Sterling K. Brown. Alexander's role could have used a little more development, but she is able to take the bones of what she is given and turn them into something special. It is a warm, inviting performance that plays off Monk's stand-offish tendencies rather well, and she has such a nice presence in the film. As for Brown, he is always excellent, but this film plays into his comedic side so well. He is definitely the most fascinating of the supporting characters, as he has the most to work with outside of Monk. His character, Cliff, is exploring his newfound sexuality, while also dealing with a recent divorce and the loss of his sister. Brown spends much of the film as an agent of chaos in Monk's life, but he has a great monologue at the end that shows he is more put-together than his actions would imply. He is absolutely magnetic in every scene he's in, and it is easily among Brown's best work.

American Fiction is rather insightful, and one of the stronger satires to come out within the past several years. It definitely signals Cord Jefferson as an exciting new voice to watch in cinema, and features an all-time great performance from Jeffrey Wright. It is such a great commentary on representation in media, and quite timely as well. I can see some viewers being confused by how it explores its ideas, but it is hard to deny that the film tackles some very relevant topics. I can't help but feel that people could take the wrong observations from the film, but I have hope that this film will at least open up people to discovering and engaging with stories about people with different identities, at least those beyond what the mainstream puts out.

Rating: 4.5/5

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