American Fiction Is a Scathing Satire of Representation Discourse

The 2023 film American Fiction, starring Best Actor nominee Jeffrey Wright, aims to spark discussion through a darkly comedic portrayal of a long debate about representations of black Americans on film. It’s a worthy directorial debut by Cord Jefferson.

Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in Cord Jefferson's American Fiction. (MGM / YouTube)

The directorial debut of acclaimed television writer Cord Jefferson, American Fiction, starts off so well it’s exhilarating. Based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, it’s a scathing satire of the god-awful trap of being creatively gifted and black in contemporary America, where the overlapping academic, publishing, and entertainment fields are maddeningly racist in the modern way. That is, with lots of mortifying double-talk about allyship, as long as what gets created is the black “trauma porn” especially revered by white liberals, featuring lots of whipped slaves, pregnant teenagers, deadbeat dads, rapping, shooting crack, and anguished gangstas in the ’hood spouting melodramatic speeches before they gun somebody down.

From the beginning, Jeffrey Wright is entirely deserving of his Academy Award for Best Actor nomination in the lead role of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison. He plays a frustrated black author and academic whose erudite novels, which are updated reworkings of ancient Greek plays, don’t sell. Placed on academic leave after several testy exchanges with students on the topic of race, he attends a literary conference and watches a rival author named Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) worshipfully interviewed on a television talk show about her new bestseller, We’s Lives in da Ghetto.

Watching her, Wright allows Monk’s frozen reaction to break with just one tiny eyebrow wrinkle that is hilarious for the immense levels of incredulous contempt it represents. Wright’s always great, but who knew he was so funny?

In an interlude of unleashed fury, Monk speed-writes a grotesquely pandering fake autobiography called My Pafology in the guise of a wanted fugitive from the law calling himself Stagg R. Leigh. You don’t have to be prescient to guess that the book is going to be enthusiastically embraced by publishers and readers trained to revere this supposedly authentic crap, and the sudden wealth and fame of Stagg R. Leigh is going to be hard for Ellison to negotiate.

I was in just the mood for this kind of slashing and hacking at mainstream discourse in dark-comic form, so I was somewhat disappointed that it turned out to be only the framework of the film, touted in the lively previews, but not really central to the experience. Most of the film is a much slower, more dramatic tale about Monk’s family, an affluent clan of well-paid professionals, mostly doctors, with a beach house they might have to sell and a troubled history they don’t know how to deal with.

Handling the family dysfunction involves a mother sinking into dementia (Leslie Uggams) who’s going to need constant, expensive care; an endearing, insolvent brother finally coming out as gay (Sterling K. Brown); a humorous, hypercompetent sister who’s been managing everything but can’t anymore (Tracee Ellis Ross); and the memories of a deceased father, brilliant but domineering and difficult, who died by suicide and whose secrets and lies are only now being revealed to Monk. All that, plus the promise of a new romance with a sweet-natured public defender living on the beach (Erika Alexander), helps Monk to heal himself through restored human connection.

The actors are all splendid. There are terrific moments, such as when brother meets sister again after his yearslong withdrawal from family life. The two actors’ tight, polite smiles and wary stances, like two gunfighters trying to sustain an uneasy truce, are wonderfully done by Wright and Ross. They even manage to suggest the layers of intense love, pain, hurt, and anger underlying those stances in just a few seconds of silent staring.

And it’s very smart the way writer-director Cord Jefferson sews together two typical ways of representing black Americans on film that reflect a long-standing public debate going back to early cinema. From the films of writer-director-producer Oscar Micheaux, starting in the 1910s, through the blaxploitation movement of the 1970s and beyond, there’s well-documented debate in the black community about how black life should be shown on-screen, with especial pressure placed on black filmmakers, given the far fewer opportunities they had to get films made and seen. Reformers and public guardians generally argued for more representations of black achievement and examples of morally upright, middle-class, and affluent lives that would “elevate the race” in public forums. This was to counter the representations of poverty, suffering, crime, and violence that were more sensational and therefore easier to get made based on commercial prospects.

The rebuttal — that the latter reflected a great deal of harrowing truth about the black experience in America — gets complicated by what can be seen as the way such representations arguably pander to prejudiced white audiences’ belief in the uniformly abject lives of black Americans.

Jefferson illustrates the difficulty of getting past the perimeters of this debate in the multiple endings of American Fiction, which provide a metacommentary on it. Each ending responds to a different aspect of the debate — and each one is equally dissatisfying. In the end, there’s no answer but to drive away, which Monk does, riding alongside his brother after their reconciliation, and giving a civil nod as he passes a black actor in the tattered costume of a slave, waiting to be called to the set of yet another movie about the horrors of plantation slavery.

Really, this is quite a worthy movie: solid, thoughtful, trying to address an issue in a way that avoids simplifying it. In the end, though, it risks arriving at a weakened “points to ponder” inconclusiveness that makes the film less memorable than it might otherwise have been. Even Monk’s initial rage at the figure of Sintara Golden is dissipated when she’s given scenes restoring dignity to her point of view. She argues Monk into silence, telling him that her book is based on intensive research, and asks why roads to commercial success should be closed to black authors just because their books might appeal to white audiences. It seems like the author who just wrote My Pafology as an angry joke and saw it become a literary sensation would have been able to come up with a withering reply.

Still, it’s Cord Jefferson’s hope that, as a result of seeing American Fiction, the debate is restoked and continues: “That, to me, is the dream,” the writer-director tells Esquire. “All I want is for people to go see it with their friends and debate.” Mission probably accomplished. American Fiction has done well at the box office for a very inexpensively produced independent film.

It’s mostly my own peculiar hunger for comedy that drives my disappointment in the film. Comedy, I mean, that doesn’t peter out in favor of supposedly more meaningful drama but gets sustained and builds to ever-higher levels of hysteria and fury, that creates a curative insanity in answer to these insane times. What happened to comedy, anyway? It’s so weak now that it barely registers. Yet you can look back at earlier eras of peak turmoil and violence in this country, such as the Depression-era 1930s through the World War II–era 1940s (Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, class-conscious screwball comedy), or the civil rights and Vietnam War–era 1960s and ’70s (Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder, apocalyptic and death-obsessed black comedy, harshly topical satire), and see comedy that’s still memorably tough-minded and perceptive and bracing.

The overlapping worlds of academia, publishing, and entertainment create a Venn diagram section that’s astoundingly loony, corrupt, and degraded. It’s just the section that happens to reflect a lot of my own history, so a sustained comic assault on it is exactly what I’d like to see. American Fiction started to scale that mountain of bullshit before detouring into personal drama, making the ever-popular move from systemic to individual problems, and I find that regrettable. Nonetheless, it’s an accomplished directorial debut, and it’s certainly worth seeing and debating as you try to catch up on the best films of 2023.