Jeffrey Wright collects franchises like football stickers. He played principled Gotham cop Jim Gordon in 2022’s gothic blockbuster The Batman. He was Bond’s reliable CIA buddy Felix Leiter throughout the Daniel Craig 007 era. He’s also the mellifluous voice of all-seeing multiverse godhead the Watcher in the Marvel TV series What If …?
From the original Hunger Games film series to video game smash The Last of Us Part II, Wright signs on for huge media projects in supporting roles and does such a quietly terrific job it leaves you wanting more. At times, his burdened brainiac Bernard seemed to be single-handedly keeping HBO’s ponderous robo-dystopia Westworld afloat.
So it feels good that in the contemporary satire American Fiction, which has been nominated for five Oscars including Best Actor, the 58-year-old gets to take centre stage. It also seems to echo the ambition of his prickly, put-upon character. A Los Angeles-based professor of literature, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison has been a novelist for years without making much headway. According to his agent, publishers are passing on his work because they do not consider his literary-minded books to be “Black enough”. Ghetto stories sell gangbusters; intellectual evocations of Greek myth less so.
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A trip to his home city of Boston for a book festival seems to corroborate that view. Monk’s highbrow salon event is sparsely attended while a solo appearance by rising star Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) – the middle-class author of a bleak, slang-filled coming-of-age novel entitled We’s Lives in Da Ghetto – is rapturously received by a predominantly white audience.
Fuming at what he sees as an ongoing injustice, Monk decides to pander to publishers by serving them a steaming pile of what they want: a violent, parodic story of generational Black trauma that they can market as “raw” and “authentic”. This manuscript is intended as a caustic joke and to draw attention to how the book industry marginalises Black authors even while claiming to celebrate them. Things get complicated, however, when his cartoonish novel – written under the evocative pen name “Stagg R Leigh” – immediately gets a high six-figure offer.