The Plot: Monk (Jeffrey Wright) is an intellectual novelist with a relatively niche market. His books are filed away under African-American Studies by bookshops, much to his displeasure. He’s just not the kind of writer who makes money, something which his agent Arthur (John Ortiz) knows all too well. With an ailing mother to care for, Monk has other things to think about. When he encounters fellow novelist Sintara (Issa Rae) playing into the tropes expected of black writers, he writes a similar book under a pseudonym about poverty, crime and being shot by the police. It’s trash that he wrote as a joke, but white publishers lap it up. Now he’s going to have to play to those expectations…
The Verdict: American Fiction has been gaining a fair bit of traction in the Awards Season conversation, with both director Cord Jefferson and actor Jeffrey Wright coming to the fore. Justifiably so too, as this is one of those too-good-for-the-Oscars films that might just pip other more obvious contenders to the post. It’s very much the dark horse in the conversation, an edgy satire about the foibles of the book world and the ongoing conversation about race in American culture and society. There’s a lot to take in with this film, but this is balanced out with a deft lightness of touch to it which belies the fact that this is Jefferson’s feature debut. It’s not every day that one encounters a debut that is so self-assured and knows exactly what it wants to say about the state of America and how to say it.
It’s adapted by Jefferson from the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, who also serves as an executive producer to shepherd it through without being tampered with. This is relevant to the story too, in which Monk’s surprise hit novel is pursued by a hotshot Hollywood director (Adam Brody) whose previous film was the black-themed ‘Plantation Annihilation’. Shades of Robert Altman’s The Player there. Cue the biggest laugh of the film towards the end. The rest of the film’s pointed barbs are towards the white, elitist publishing world and weary book critics, who dismissed Monk’s previous books for not being ‘black enough’. So, he gives them what they want in all its gaudy, predictable dressing, pulls the pin on this literary grenade and watches it explode… with unexpected popularity. Now people, especially white people, are sitting up and taking notice.
Jefferson approaches this potentially provocative situation with just the right amount of cynicism mixed with irony, while ensuring that it’s playful rather than mean-spirited. The script is razor-sharp throughout, with some priceless exchanges between Monk and an eager publisher over the phone, as he puts on a tougher voice to match his alter ego’s supposed criminal status. With each step into his newfound fame, Monk is digging himself into a bigger hole though. There’s some welcome character development throughout, as we view Monk through the eyes of his brother, sister and a romantic connection with a neighbour. This rounds him out as a character, aided in no small part by a never-better Wright. For an established and respected actor to have faith in a first-time director like that is encouraging for newcomers to the industry. There’s also the sense that Wright was responding to a great script which played to his strengths as an actor, while giving him a peach of a part.
American Fiction may outwardly appear to be one of those culturally-centric films that might not translate as well across the pond, but ultimately that’s not the case here. It’s a clever, well-acted and well-made film which speaks truth to power, while being slyly funny about it too. It’s a cinematic page turner in every sense and is well worth seeking out.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
American Fiction (USA / 15A / 116 mins)
In short: Page turner
Directed by Cord Jefferson.
Starring Jeffrey Wright, Erika Alexander, Sterling K. Brown, John Ortiz, Issa Rae, Adam Brody.