‘American Fiction’ movie review: Write stuff from Jeffrey Wright

Lurking around the corner of every great film is the possibility of excessive praise, but “American Fiction” deftly navigates and tears down the very adulation it might warrant. Adapted from the enlightened pages of Percival Everett’s 2001 tome “Erasure,” Cord Jefferson makes a splash with his first directorial outing, delivering a satirical and dazzling foray into the absurd world of academia and the book business.

In the core of this narrative whirlwind, we meet Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, portrayed by the incomparable Jeffrey Wright, an author whose exquisite literary works are lost in the quagmire of unsold copies. His beleaguered literary agent Arthur, given life by John Ortiz, informs him that his latest opus has been spurned by publishers for lacking ‘black’ authenticity, sparking a series of events that sends Monk reeling. An explosive debate over race with one of his students at a Los Angeles college nudges Monk into an enforced sabbatical, urging him to reconnect with family in Boston.

Upon his homecoming, Monk encounters both the apathetic attendance at his own literature panel and the overflowing interest in another author’s event. Sintara Golden, embodied by Issa Rae, captivates crowds with her novel “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” a portrayal replete with stereotypes of teen pregnancy and poverty, striking a sharp contrast with Monk’s own nuanced work. Family dynamics bubble to the surface as Monk reconvenes with his sister Lisa, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, a recently divorced doctor now solely responsible for their mother Agnes’s care, portrayed tenderly by Leslie Uggams.

Further complicating the Ellison family tableau is the presence of Cliff, a plastic surgeon grappling with the fallout of personal scandal, masterfully interpreted by Sterling K. Brown. Monk’s own personal life flourishes through a burgeoning relationship with his neighbor Coraline, a lawyer and a fan of Monk’s writing, depicted with grace by Erika Alexander.

Pushed to the brink by both financial distress and disdain for the reduction of black life to caricature by literary critics and publishers alike, Monk surrenders to penning “My Pafology,” a manuscript brimming with gang conflicts, substance abuse, and lackluster fatherhood. The pen name Stagg R. Leigh becomes his cloak, a shroud beneath which he unveils a narrative pandering to the very stereotypes he abhors, to wild industry acclaim.

As publishers scramble to furnish Monk with an advance and Hollywood producer Wiley, played by Adam Brody, dangles a multimillion-dollar adaptation, Monk finds himself caught in the chaos of his own making, masquerading as a law-evading rogue. His satirical masterpiece rockets up the bestseller lists, with even the FBI caught up in the frenzy, and a shocking twist awaits at a prestigious literary award dinner.

Wright’s embodiment of Monk is nothing short of a revelation—each flicker of rage, humor, and gentleness skillfully understated, weaving a rich canvas of emotional depth. The film cradles other tender narratives, such as the budding affection between the housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and police officer Maynard (Raymond Anthony Thomas), as well as the intricate interplay among the Ellison siblings.

The film’s brilliance also shines in the animate embodiments of Stagg’s characters, specifically Willy the Wonker (Keith David) and Van Go Jenkins (Okieriete Onaodowan), a narrative technique that borders on genius. “American Fiction” dazzles with such vivid strokes, echoing the days of impassioned literary debates and the classifications that once hemmed in Indian writing in English, and the pigeonholes of Indian cinema, divided into depictions of the exotic, tales of the Raj, and raw portrayals of the underworld.

Celebrating nominations for five Oscars, including Best Picture and a nod to Wright for Best Actor, “American Fiction” stands as a testament that gloom is not a prerequisite for profundity, and that there is immense joy to be found in the critique of social constructs.

Now available on Amazon Prime Video, “American Fiction” invites audiences to witness a film that not only holds a mirror to society but also presents a rich tapestry of stories, characters, and thoughtful satire that linger long after the screen fades to black.

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