A satire that gets us talking

Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut, American fictionis a sharp comedy about the commercialization of race, hosted by the great Jeffrey Wright.
Photo: Claire Folger/Orion Releasing

When at rest, Jeffrey Wright’s face tends to be serious. He has a strong forehead, which he likes to accentuate by tilting his head forward and peering over the glasses he often wears on screen. That aura of weary authority that Wright conveys so effortlessly has been deployed in recent years in roles as cops and generals, politicians and journalists, and so on American fiction, an academic. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is an author and professor who at first glance seems like another one of those jack-of-all-trades characters. But despite his depression and outbursts of anger, Monk radiates a lightness that soon sets him apart from others. At a book festival he comes across a lecture by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), her debut novel We live in the ghetto, is cajoled by the moderator. As Sintara – an Oberlin-educated former publishing assistant – is cheered by the crowd, asking herself, “Where is?” our Presentation?” – abruptly switches to AAVE while reading from her book, Monk’s eyebrows hover above his head. They rise to the point where they’re on the verge of forming brackets that could exclude him from the whole experience until, with perfect timing , his face is replaced by the delighted face of a white woman in the audience who has just shot to her feet in front of them as he joins in a standing ovation.

American fiction is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Deletea dark comedy about how Monk cannot find a publisher for his latest manuscript, a revision of Aeschylus The Persians, because it is considered insufficiently black. In a fit of frustration and after just watching for a bit Get rich or die trying On a hotel television, under the pseudonym Stagg R. Lee, he drafts a compendium of exaggerated clichés about urban suffering, titles it “My Pafology,” and instructs his reluctant agent (John Ortiz) to send it to publishers for what he believes to be withering criticism of their narrow vision of the black experience. Instead, he receives a huge offer, which leaves Monk desperate because, with his mother (Leslie Uggams) showing signs of memory loss, he really needs the money. Everett’s book is overshadowed by Sapphire’s Pressalthough it’s not as if the racist commercialization he lampooned has gone anywhere – hell, whether it’s an intentional reference point or not, American dirt was released just three years ago. Still, the film, which marks the directorial debut of journalist and television writer Cord Jefferson, also explores the ripe terrain of the Hollywood adaptation pipeline.

I have already argued about whether the satire is in American fiction is too broad, the kind that consciously makes the audience laugh along instead of feeling accused. Having been on an awards committee whose deliberations ended in a situation similar to the one in the film, I’d say it’s perfectly fine. But Jefferson also wisely sees the material as the story of a closed man for whom professional bitterness has become another means of shutting everyone out. Monk isn’t there just to be the recipient of a reductive industry’s well-intentioned bigotry, or to serve as an avatar for anyone annoyed by that industry’s insistence on treating any material about race as something to be consumed in a corporation The act of educational penance is pushed to the edge. He is also someone whose habitual reserve extends to his relationships with his mother, who lives alone in his parents’ home in Boston, as well as his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), a doctor at a women’s clinic, and his brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), a plastic surgeon whose delayed coming out led to heavy partying.

An early scene of banter between a reunited monk and Lisa is so wry and enjoyable, with Wright and Ross great at providing insight into the children these two characters once were, that I almost wish the film would just be focus on the Ellison family, whose siblings struggle with having to take on the roles of adults. The secret of American fiction is that it is secretly what Monk longs for – a portrait of black characters who are not representatives of inner-city oppression, who live upper-middle-class lives and grew up with a beach house on Martha’s Vineyard, and who have their own well-defined complex of problems . The literary asides are sharp and funny, but it’s the rueful family dynamics that make the film as worthwhile as the performances. Like his fall release Dream scenarioit owes Spike Jonze one Adjustment. And finally it backs itself into a corner and ends with a “What can you do?” shrug. But Wright’s performance as a sad sack who is both right and has his own problems with respectability is particularly memorable. Monk is a guy who is so sure he’s seen it all that he can’t see his own blind spots.

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https://www.vulture.com/article/american-fiction-review-a-satire-thatll-keep-us-talking.html A satire that gets us talking


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