Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

What would you do if millions of dollars were laid at your feet to promote the stereotypes of your own people? What if you hated the things you made, but they were the only things keeping you financially stable? What if you were a Black, but just not Black enough for white people? These themes, among many others, are what Cord Jefferson (Master of None, Watchmen, Succession) explores in his directorial debut American Fiction.

Based on Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, American Fiction is a comedy/drama that follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, played by Jeffrey Wright (Westworld, No Time to Die, Angels in America). Monk is a frustrated Black author who just wants to write books that transcend his race and expand his readers’ minds. But when his books fail to sell and family issues begin to tug on his wallet, he decides to write a book that is an absolute joke to him, but is seen as authentic African-American art by the white-controlled industry he’s been struggling in for as long.

An All-American Cast

Wright is joined by a fantastic cast of Black actors such as Tracee Ellis Ross, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Keith David, Issa Rae, and Sterling K. Brown, who make his close but dysfunctional group of friends and family. As you might expect from a cast like this, the acting is stellar. Everyone Wright shares a screen with brings their A-game to their scenes. With a movie this funny yet this dramatic, it could’ve been easy for one of them to play their character over the top and call it a day. Yet despite the comedic nature of this film, everyone plays their character straight with an Oscar level of dedication. Which ironically makes the scenes they’re in even funnier.

The best performance of the film however has to be Wright’s portrayal of Monk. During the length of the film, Wright brilliantly highlights the good, bad, and ugly aspects of his character. He makes you hate Monk’s arrogance, empathize with his struggles, and laugh at his discomfort. By the end, Monk feels larger than life yet like someone you know. And much of that can be credited to how Wright takes his time bringing him to life.

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First-Class Fiction

Of course, a feature like this would be nothing without a good story. Lucky for us, this one is fantastic. The narrative focuses on two parts of Monk’s life. One part professional, and the other personal. The two sides subtly mirror each other and highlight Monk’s difficulty relating to the world around him. Both his career and family life suffer from his superiority complex yet Monk is rarely wrong in his assessments of the situations surrounding him. The issue of the joke book that his white colleagues seem to love so much expands beyond the character of Monk too. The movie really takes its time to look at how Black art must be received by a white audience to truly be a success. At the same time, it takes a look at why and how other Black creators are perfectly fine with creating more stereotypical content. On some level, Monk represents a part of most Black people who want to see Blackness represented outside of trauma and poverty. And on another level, he represents the pretentious idea that stories about the Black lower class are garbage fiction.

Director Cord Jefferson. Photo Courtesy of: Orion Pictures/MRC

The movie is also dedicated to letting the audience come to their own conclusion. Which is both its greatest strength and biggest weakness. After 2 hours of wrestling with the way the entertainment industry treats Black narratives, the filmmakers leave the messaging of the movie a little too open-ended. Quite a few themes are left not fully realized, like a sentence that was abruptly stopped and never finished. Monk’s personal story ends pretty well, but the way that some of the ideas are left by the end leaves too little for the audience to ponder after the credits roll.

Conclusion

American Fiction is both one of the funniest and smartest films of the year. Its cast is damn near perfect and its writing is sharp. And while the themes might leave some viewers wanting more, the overall messaging about Black stories and creatives is loud and clear. Give Black creatives the platform to tell the stories they want to tell.

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