Jeffrey Wright earns his Oscar nomination within a minute of American Fiction. His wearied author and lecturer, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, has written out the N-word in reference to a famous Flannery O’Connor short story, and a white student voices her objection to it. Monk’s shoulders slump, his features crumble. You catch the millisecond he has to readjust himself, swallow down the truth, and offer his most courteous reply. “I got over it,” Monk says. “I’m pretty sure you can, too.”
It’s not enough for the white bosses at his university, though, so he’s sent back home to Boston to take time out with his family. It’s an opening vignette that neatly captures the satire of writer-director Cord Jefferson’s debut, in which the mainstream narrative on Black art and thought – what it is and should be – is persistently controlled by white voices. But to reduce the film simply to its outlook on race ignores both its content and its message, as some of its most rewarding elements follow Monk back to his family, for a funny, touching portrait of a man attempting to fine-tune his relationship with the world.
His mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and his reunion with his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), and brother, Cliff (Sterling K Brown), challenges his memories of childhood. It’s a thrill, too, to see Brown land a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here – the conversations Monk and Cliff share about the latter’s ostracisation from the family due to his sexuality are tender and emotional. He’s freshly divorced after his wife caught him in bed with a man, and now seems to be doing what he can, imperfectly, to make up for what he feels were wasted years. Monk falls for the lawyer-next-door, Coraline (Erika Alexander). She’s a fan of his work, but he’ll have to learn the hard lesson that love isn’t forcing another person to see the world exactly as you do.
Meanwhile, Monk stews over his career. His books, largely reimagined takes on the ancient plays of Aristophanes and Aeschylus, have found little popular success. And, somehow, they always seem to end up in the “African-American Studies” section of the bookstore, despite not being concerned with race. He’s instead been overshadowed by authors like Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), who’s just released her novel We’s Lives in Da Ghetto – a work Monk views as riddled with reductive Black stereotypes, and published to capitalise on a white desire to consume Black suffering and feel absolved by it. In the film’s source material, Percival Everett’s 2001 book Erasure, Sintara’s book seemed to be a direct allusion to the somewhat controversial Push by Sapphire, famously adapted into the Oscar-winning film Precious.
In retaliation, Monk pours all of his bitterness into a mocking, deliberately offensive tale of poverty, crime and police brutality. He sends a copy to his publicist (John Ortiz), under the title “My Pafology”. It, of course, becomes a ginormous hit, and Monk is forced to pose as the pseudonym he adopted, a fugitive named Stagg R Leigh. The various reactions of publishers, the press and the Hollywood director (Adam Brody) who comes circling are relentlessly funny, especially when Monk decides to push the prank further with an alternative, SEO-unfriendly name for the book.
There’s a limit, here, to how deeply the film engages with Monk’s own relationship to class and Blackness (“I don’t believe in race,” he insists) – there’s a brilliant conversation he and Sintara have that easily could have been extended and probed. But, as Brody’s Hollywood director argues, “nuance doesn’t put asses on seats”. And American Fiction at least finds plenty of richness elsewhere.
Dir: Cord Jefferson. Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Issa Rae, Sterling K Brown. 15, 117 minutes.
‘American Fiction’ is in cinemas from 2 February