read our review for American Fiction, out in UK 2nd February
Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The ‘dumber’ I behave, the richer I get” is a line from Cord Jefferson’s latest films but it could very well describe our society as a whole. This film is at its best when it encourages this timely commentary on our society with meaningful comedy that always makes the audience think twice about what is being shown on screen. It is a film that makes you think about the current state of affairs in today’s society and yet, despite its bleak undertones, it is an incredibly run watch throughout. 


Based on the novel Erasure” by Percival EverettAmerican Fiction is Cord Jefferson’s feature directorial debut. The film follows its main character, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a frustrated novelist who struggles to publish his next book and is fed up with the publishing industry that profits from the exploitation of Black trauma. At the beginning of the film, Monk moves back to his hometown where his family lives, including his siblings Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), and his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggamns). As a joke, decides to write his own stereotypical Black book under a pseudonym, but his latest novel ends up being more successful than what Monk himself may have initially envisioned or hoped for. 


American Fiction poignantly touches on the question of the exploitation of black trauma. At the very beginning of the film, Monk talks about the fact that he doesn’t really believe in race, only to be told that “the problem is that everyone else does.” In short, this sums up the movie perfectly: throughout the film, there is always the feeling that Monk, as a Black author, is expected to write a so-called Black book that relies on overused and offensive tropes to fit into a stereotypical idea of what Black people are. An idea that, as Monk states in the film, oftentimes does more harm than good, feeding Black trauma porn to an overwhelmingly white audience that seems to keep asking for it.  


Can the worst book ever written make you rich? This is the very question explored at the core of American Fiction. Arguably, in the film, Monk is only giving the market what it wants and fulfilling the expectations put on him as a Black writer but, Monk himself would argue, it goes a lot deeper than that if we look at the individual’s responsibility when creating a product. Therefore, this film also creates an interesting commentary on the word of publishing which rings very true today. In a world where books are becoming just another commodity, they often end up overconsumed and overpublished as the publishing industry is increasingly adopting a fast fashion system where, no matter the quality, the product will be made and sold if there is a demand for it. 


Interestingly, American Fiction does not stop at the publishing industry. In the second half of the film, a similar satire is reserved for the film industry. Thus, it encourages a similar reflection on what films get made and why: does the dubious quality and morality of a project influence the odds of making it? Or does that only make it an even more valuable option for the revenue it will potentially generate? American Fiction asks all these questions through irony and satire, but the film industry is still yet to answer them. 


While the film’s premise is fascinating, the focus on Monk’s personal life lost me a little bit and took away from the larger point the story was trying to convey. In particular, I felt like the love interest plot took a lot of screen time despite possibly being the least interesting one. It does allow the audience to gain an insight into another part of Monk’s life and, as such, does a lot for character building, but I wish American Fiction would have kept its focus on the satire elements instead of having to include a romantic story at all costs. 


I wish Monk’s family would have been given more screentime: by the time American Fiction ends, I found myself wanting to know more about them and the history and relationship they share with the main character. A lot of what we see from these characters feels like a snapshot into their life, one that does not always have a continuation or conclusion in its plot. Admittedly this all pays off in the end as Monk’s relationship with his family allows for a poignant exploration of grief, delivered through a brilliant performance by Jeffrey Wright. Despite the little screen time, the supporting cast does a fantastic job at portraying their respective characters and making the audience care about them during the whole film. 


American Fiction is a powerful film, but it felt like watching a beautifully shot essay: while its message stayed with me, a lot of the plot ended up lost in the bigger message the movie wants to deliver. As a satire, American Fiction is almost flawless, but as a family drama, it does have its faults in its narrative and delivery. The witty jokes and emotional plotlines are delivered by an excellent cast, making it a must-watch of the year, despite some narrative flows in the delivery of the film. 


Comedy, Drama | USA, 2023 | 15 | Cinema | 2nd February 2024 (UK) | Curzon | Dir.Cord Jefferson | Jeffrey Wright, Tracey Ellis Ross, Keith David, Issa Rae, John Ortiz, Adam Brody, Sterling K.Brown

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