Novelist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), is frustrated by the way society and the publishing world profits from “Black” entertainment that relies on tired and offensive tropes. Exasperated, Monk adopts a pseudonym to write a trope fuelled “Black” book of his own.
American Fiction, Cord Jefferson's feature directorial debut, is sharp, funny and has heart to spare. Based on Percival Everett’s book, Erasure, the film features an impressive cast who all give moving and entertaining performances.
Jeffrey Wright is (of course) brilliant. Far from being a one note comedic (and cantankerous) character, Wright’s performance balances the film’s, occasionally uneasy, focus on both Monk’s personal and professional life.
Wright is extremely well supported by the rest of American Fiction’s cast. Sterling K Brown is an absolute stand out and I also loved the performances by Leslie Uggams, Issa Rae and Tracee Ellis Ross.
The film’s screenplay, written by Jefferson, is a joy with lots of humorous, endlessly quotable lines. The film also has important things to say about art, culture and society. However, apart from a few genuinely cringe-worthy scenes, Jefferson's satire does not possess a ferocious bite, preferring to remain entertaining and gently thought-provoking.
Jefferson had not considered becoming a film director. Then, in 2020, he read Everett’s book. In an interview with The New York Times the director explained that “20 pages in, I knew I had to write a film adaptation. By the time I finished the book, I knew that I had to direct it”.
When asked what about the book spoke to him, Jefferson replied: “There was so much. The most obvious is just the conversation that it’s having about the expectations of a Black artist in this country, what people want or think that Black art should be. That was a huge part of my life when I was still working in journalism”.
Jefferson also noted similarities to his own life in the novel’s family dynamic. “I have two older siblings. And there’s an ailing parent in the book, and my mother passed of cancer in 2016, after two years of struggling,” he explained. “One of the siblings in the book is charged with caring for the parent because the other two are off doing their own thing, and that was the dynamic with us. My oldest brother shouldered that responsibility. He went about it stoically and never complained or anything, but I had this residual guilt over not being there”.
The heart of American Fiction lies in its family scenes. When the film focuses on developments in Monk’s complicated family life, it becomes incredibly moving. American Fiction is, as a result, both a powerful satire and a deeply personal story with universal appeal. After this impressive debut, I cannot wait to see what Jefferson directs next.