One of the freshest stories to come from Hollywood last year (that didn’t involve a labor strike) was Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction, starring Jeffrey Wright, Sterling K. Brown, Leslie Uggams, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Issa Rae.
The film, released in December and nominated for five Oscars, is an old-fashioned intelligent comedy with a mix of social satire, telling of a frustrated writer reckoning with a shifting, ever-trivial industry, and family responsibilities.
Wright plays Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an aging author and college professor in L.A. who can’t sell a new book. To his agent, Arthur, he bemoans the wave of Black storytellers who write “pandering” stories about violence and racism, namely the author, Sintara Golden (Rae), whose new book We’s Lives in Da Ghetto is the current bestseller. After a poorly attended literary seminar in Boston, Monk visits his sister, Lisa (Ellis-Ross), and mother, Agnes (Uggams), the latter of whom is showing signs of Alzheimer’s.
While discussing the possibility of putting Agnes in a nursing facility, Lisa has a heart attack in front of Monk and dies. The memorial ceremony brings his brother Cliff (Brown) back home, a troubled, longtime-closeted gay man who was the black sheep of the family. Monk must take on the responsibilities of selling the family’s estate and moving Agnes to a new home – with little money to his name.
Frustrated, Monk decides to write a total pander-piece: a joke of a novel entitled My Pafology, about gangs, violence, drugs, and all the fixins of a bestselling ”Black Story.” Using the pseudonym “Stagg R. Leigh,” he unexpectedly sells the book for a whopping $750,000 advance; more than enough needed to help his ailing mother. Arthur even develops the Stagg R. Leigh character, calling him a fugitive from the law who cannot appear in person for publicity. Now, Monk finds himself selling a secret book under a secret alias, even from his new, supportive girlfriend, Coraline.
What follows is a breakdown of a writer’s self-respect, the building back of a broken family, and the ridicule of an unmindful but powerful few. Stagg R. Leigh becomes the hottest author of the year.
American Fiction is not so much a satire of race relations as it is the entertainment industry. In an era where works of art are relegated to content, manufactured like car parts at a lightning-fast rate, it pulls the cover back on the most exploitative tendencies of the arts and letters market. Yet, it challenges Monk’s position on said exploitation: to be a successful author in the 21st century, he must meet these standards of criteria. Such work clearly resonates with audiences, but how high is the cost of dignity? In this sense, the film doesn’t necessarily aim to inspire writers, but rather to offer a warning that kowtowing to market forces is a get-rich-quick scheme that can surrender a man’s integrity. It applies to any art industry, from painting to filmmaking and everything in between. The film ignites reflection on all the crap that we, the audience, consume in what’s supposed to be our art: think of all the messy reality shows on television or one of the fifteen uninspired superhero movies to come out during the summer. We eat it up, alright, but is this really the best we have to offer?
Thereto, one of the strengths of the film is that it does not chide the audience for devouring mediocre content, choosing instead to lambaste all the executives and managers pushing this content.
The film’s script is snappy and smart, rife with zingers and awareness, and playing out like a fusion of Neil Simon and Spike Lee. This is the debut film from writer-director Cord Jefferson, who can anticipate a good career ahead. Each of these performers gives nuanced breath into their characters, including Oscar-nominated Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown. The cherry on top? A jazzy music score by Laura Karpman that blissfully garnishes each scene.
The film does see some trouble in balancing all its stories – the third act feels a bit clunky, and the twist ending (without giving spoilers) leaves something to be desired. It does not, however, take much away from the whole of American Fiction: a film that will leave the viewer ruminating about the pitfalls of being an artist.
American Fiction is in theatres across the United States including Regal and Riverwatch Cinemas in Augusta.
Dylan James graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Dramatic Writing. He has studied both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ aspects of show business since childhood, and writes through sociological analysis, seeking relevance in the art and commerce for the moment.