Review by Camden Ferrell
American Fiction sees Emmy-winning writer Cord Jefferson into the director’s chair for the first time. It is an adaptation of the Percival Everett novel Erasure. This comedy-drama had its premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award. Currently eyeing awards and Oscar recognition, this film has some insightful ideas about race and the commodification of art, but it also can sometimes falter due to its family drama elements.
Monk is a novelist who resents the lack of integrity in the reading habits of consumers. He detests how best-selling books reduce Black people to outrageous stereotypes and how it limits the ability of his own work to flourish or be published. Fed up with this status quo and dealing with issues in his personal life, Monk uses a pen name to write a “Black” book that unexpectedly launches him to new heights and moral dilemmas. Despite being based on a book that’s over 20 years old, this premise still remains topical and one worth exploring deeper.
Written by Jefferson, the film starts out strongly. It balances the social commentary with some compelling family drama, and its dialogue is well-paced and witty. While the commentary stays sharp throughout, the personal elements of Monk’s life become less compelling as time goes on. Instead of fleshing out his character like it initially does, it eventually feels like it’s bloating the runtime without too much benefit. Despite its flaws, Jefferson approaches the main social issues of this movie with nuance and great insight.
One of the most memorable parts of this movie is Jeffrey Wright’s amazing turn as Monk. Regardless of whatever flaws are in this movie, Wright is a powerhouse of an actor who always makes the most of it. His performance is funny, emotional, and most importantly frustrating. He grapples with the lack of integrity in the way Black stories are marketed and sold, and this is shown in subtle and un-subtle ways. The supporting cast is also quite strong with some notable highlights being Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, and Leslie Uggams.
The way Jefferson satirizes these issues of race can occasionally be hit or miss. The insight is present and clear, but the humor of the movie doesn’t always land as intended. There are some genuinely funny moments throughout, but some jokes aren’t as successful. However, it does succeed in being provocative and inspiring important conversations about how we commodify art and sometimes celebrate offensive and tired tropes that are detrimental to marginalized communities.
American Fiction isn’t perfect, but it has great analysis of important social issues while being quite funny more often than not. Jeffrey Wright is a memorable lead, and it proves Jefferson might have a lucrative career as a director in addition to his accomplished writing career. This is one you’ll likely see referenced a lot in awards season, and it’s definitely worth checking out despite its flaws.
American Fiction is in theaters December 15.