Film

American Fiction review – a satirical take on novel writing with Jeffrey Wright

A frustrated novelist writes a cartoonish book to prove a point. It ends up becoming a sensation

Jeffrey Wright and Erika Alexander in American Fiction

Jeffrey Wright’s Thelonious with love interest Coraline (Erika Alexander). Image: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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.

All this coincides with Monk awkwardly reconnecting with his Boston roots, checking in on his ageing mother and trying to build bridges with the younger siblings he basically abandoned. But an unexpected change in family circumstances means he finds himself with urgent cashflow problems. That financially lavish book contract starts to look not just tempting but essential. The question is: can the scholarly Monk keep up the facade of fugitive wordsmith Stagg R Leigh long enough to ride the book hype all the way to Hollywood?

The publishing industry takes the brunt of the jabs that American Fiction is throwing, even if the clueless editors and shameless publicists that get skewered are so over the top they seem like caricatures. It has been marketed as a provocative, hot-button comedy but this film – directed by Cord Jefferson, adapting the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett – treats a lot of the bogus book stuff as subplot, seemingly more interested in what is happening with the wider Ellison clan. 

Monk’s mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) is starting to get forgetful, and his plastic surgeon brother Cliff (Sterling K Brown) has imploded his own young family by belatedly – and enthusiastically – coming out as gay. There is also local love interest Coraline (Erika Alexander), who not only seems charmed by Monk’s Frasier-like grumpiness but has even read a couple of his novels.

Perhaps this emphasis on the messy, multi-faceted lives of the supporting cast – notably a tentative love story for the family’s long-serving home help – is meant to illustrate that there are a million stories to tell about the Black experience in the US that do not involve poverty or drug dealing.

The calibre of the performances make this family saga engrossing, and the way Monk and his live-wire brother snipe at each other feels both funny and plausible. 

But the thing about any creative project – be it a fake novel or a satirical film – is that you really need to stick the landing and American Fiction takes a big postmodern swing at the end. While it puts you in the mindset of a stressed author crafting an ambiguous finale, then hastily deleting it to bash out a less challenging alternative, it cannot help but undercut all that has come before.

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic. American Fiction is in cinemas from 2 February.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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