Thelonious “Monk” Ellison's writing career has stalled because his work isn’t deemed “Black enough.” Monk, a writer and English professor, writes a satirical novel under a pseudonym, aiming to expose the publishing world's hypocrisies. The book’s immediate success forces him to get deeper enmeshed in his assumed identity and challenges his closely-held worldviews.
Many consider satire to be the most challenging genre for a screenwriter to pull off. When done poorly, the result is usually heavy-handed, annoyingly offensive, or lacking an appropriate level of finesse and subtlety. When done well, satire can cleverly critique its topic or subjects with shrewd and thoughtful nuance to both entertain and engage the audience intellectually. At its best, satiric storytelling calls into question its own audience's transgressions and will provide thoughtful social commentary by seamlessly weaponizing its humor in service to its working thesis. This is my overly long-winded appreciation for great satire, which is more often than not a difficult juggling act to pull off and is often easily miscalibrated.
With its sharp-witted concept and top-notch performances, American Fiction is the directorial debut from journalist-turned-TV-writer-turned-filmmaker Cord Jefferson. Adapted from Erasure, a novel from 2001 written by Percival Everett, Jefferson's film is cutting and current, intimate and layered, and perhaps most importantly, satiates the dire need for a prickly and pointed American satirical comedy. Despite some of its occasional tonal mish-mash and predictable but still messy plot machinations, Jefferson manages to corral his ambitions and direct a genuinely funny film that has a lot of knotty ideas, a lot of heart, and plenty of food for thought to chew on afterward.
Playing the brilliant but emotionally withdrawn Thelonious "Monk" Ellison is Jeffrey Wright, in what is undoubtedly one of the great lead performances of last year. Monk is an esteemed but frustrated novelist-professor whose written work is immensely academic but struggles commercially. When we meet him, he's having difficulty finding distribution for his latest manuscript – his publishers claim it isn't well erm... "black enough." Amidst an overflow of personal and professional frustration, Monk impulsively and spitefully writes a draft for a new book called "My Pafology," which is later hilariously re-titled, "Fuck." Monk isn't going for subtlety, he's trying to make a point. This farcical 'fuck-you' novel is branded as and filled with the same kind of pandering and obnoxious stereotypes that white readers (and in turn, white publishers) are looking for from black authors. Monk ironically submits it to his publishers expecting it to fail miserably. To his surprise and utter dismay, Monk receives a lucrative offer for the book's pre-emptive rights. Taking the money makes him something short of a hypocrite, but he'd be a fool to pass up the money, right? He begrudgingly agrees to publish the book under the pseudonym of a violent, convicted felon the run named Stagg R. Leigh. Monk's book goes on to debut as a #1 bestseller, is optioned for a major film adaptation, and is submitted for the New England Book Association's annual Literary Award, which is a panel that he previously agreed to participate on as a judge as part of a 'diversity push.' Ha, what a ridiculous snowball. No need for me to delve deeper than that for now – the remaining details are worth leaving uncovered.
There is certainly a lot to like about what Jefferson has put together with his directorial debut. This script is smart, the casting is spot-on, and the craft is sturdy. What perhaps holds the film back from being truly great is the film's insistence on steering into convention and caricature. As a visual filmmaker, Jefferson keeps things conservative and simplistic, and while the pointy screenplay and strong performances are ultimately what the story hinges upon, I think the film would've benefitted from a few more memorable cinematic flourishes and experimentation. Nothing about the way the film is shot is poor, just a bit plain, which feels like a shorthand for a film with such a potent voice.
Moreover, the film struggles when jumping back and forth between the in-your-face zaniness of Monk's publishers and some of the more melodramatic mundanity of the Ellison family, as well as the somewhat crammed-in romantic scenes with Coraline (Erika Alexander). Too often does the family/romantic drama of the B-storylines run the risk of undermining the vivacious energy of the satirical A-storyline – this jumbled tonality begins to feel like a series of narrative stops and starts rather than a controlled yin-yang. Slightly tighter control over the film's pacing and cadence might've helped manage the contrast between each half of the narrative and make everything feel a bit more deliberate and a bit less uneven. Even as things are a bit muddled, the ensemble of great actors Wright help things interesting, including two especially inspired turns from Oscar-nominee Sterling K. Brown as Monk's brother, Cliff, and Issa Rae as Sintara Golden, a successful contemporary author who is both at odds and in step with Monk over various points of the story. Before I forget, let me rain a downpour of praise on Jeffrey Wright. Normally a reliably stalwart supporting actor, Wright shines under the spotlight and makes the absolute most of more screen time than he's usually allotted. Even for him, this is surely an additional high point for the immensely talented performer – I continue to be a big fan of his.
There are several bold narrative twists and turns in the last ten minutes of the film that may well challenge select viewers, particularly those individuals seeking more of a straightforward conclusion and a clearer return on investment. The fact that Jefferson refrains from making any sort of throat-clearing, final declaration and instead takes the route of exploring a few surrealist musings is to the film's benefit in my opinion. Rejecting convention and keeping things murky is the more rewarding choice – some things are better left hanging in the air for the audience to inhale and exhale as the credits roll.
Despite some of its imperfections, I found American Fiction to be refreshingly bold in its satire and perceptively savvy in its storytelling. There are many great performances, Laura Karpman's jazzy, piano-forward score is perfectly pensive and paradoxical, and the film's big ideas are properly poked and probed but never massaged, thanks to dexterous and delicate handling on the part of the writer-director. The laughs here are earned and they not only highlight the deeper message at hand but also help the medicinal truth go down a bit easier. After it premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People's Choice Award, the film has garnered considerable critical acclaim, has appeared on many prestigious 'Best of the Year' lists, and was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture. Deservingly so, I would say.
In theaters today still (hopefully)
While we are now out of the rush of the holiday season, there is still a lot of beer lingering around in refrigerator, one of which was the seasonal Jubelale from Deschutes Brewery. Strong and malty as it is, I found it to be very much in the spirit of the holiday season thanks to its rich amalgamation of flavors. It's flavor profile includes notes of chocolate, fruits, and punchy spices. There is commendable balance with this pour with just the right mix of sweet and smooth flavors along with the tiniest hop of bitterness. 'Tis still the damn season.