American Fiction (2023) | Review

Jeffrey Wright hits a career best in this uneven but hilarious story that takes aim at the exploitation and exaggeration of 'black' stories.

american fiction movie poster
Source: The Movie Database

Synopsis: While his family suffers one tragedy and prepares for another, writer Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison laments the financial success of exploitative ‘Black’ stories in entertainment. Using a pseudonym, he writes an exaggerated story which may bring him more success than previous work.

Director: Cord Jefferson
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Leslie Uggams, Erika Alexander, Sterling K. Brown, John Ortiz

American Fiction has a tricky balancing act to pull off. Its trailer presents it as a combative examination of how countless books and movies are labelled as ‘raw’ and ‘brave’ for sharing stories of tragic African American experiences. But rather than solely being a satire of how stereotypically ‘black’ stories are sold, it also presents itself as the model alternative - a familial drama not about ‘blackness’. The result is tonally mixed, but a well-performed and entertaining movie that will have you laughing and examining your own viewing biases.

Let’s start with Jeffrey Wright, who at last has a role that allows him to properly flex his dramatic muscles. In his most prominent work over the last decade, Wright has been either the technical whiz (Source Code, the Hunger Games franchise, and the Westworld TV series) or a rigid story pusher (see both his James Bond and Wes Anderson universe appearances). It’s with great delight that we get to watch Wright play Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison as the most likeable genius in years. He’s charming, self-deprecating, caring, and sincere while still being prone to comedic outbursts.

american fiction screencap
Source: The Movie Database

Monk is a moderately successful writer and academic who can’t stand the reductive stories of black experiences that range from slavery movies to ‘wrong side of the tracks’ suburban melodrama. When he sees a younger peer strike success with just the kind of story he hates, he pens his own exaggerated story under a fake name to expose how phoney it all is. So, of course, that’s when he strikes career success, and the further Monk pushes the envelope, the greater the success. John Ortiz is great fun as Monk’s agent, who bounds from glee at seeing dollar signs to panicking that Monk might blow the whole charade to pieces. Think The Producers meets Sorry To Bother You.

ARTHUR: They want a ‘black’ book.
MONK: They have one. I’m black and it’s my book.
ARTHUR: You know what I mean.

The ludicrousness of his writing adventure can make the straight drama of Monk’s family life look tame by comparison. But there are still lots of pieces in play: his mother’s deteriorating health, an estranged brother, a growing romance with the woman across the street, and the family’s housekeeper starting a new life all move quite naturally. It's pedestrian at times, and not every Alzheimer's-induced incident will successfully pull on your heartstrings, but Sterling K. Brown and Erika Alexander put in fine shifts as Monk's brother and lover (respectively).

One quibble from me is the very short stint from Tracee Ellis Ross as Monk's sister. Ross has already walked the tightrope of comedy and family drama through her tremendous Rainbow Johnson in Black-ish and she gets nowhere near enough time here to do something memorable. Monk has enough on his plate for the rest of the movie and the script wouldn't have jumped through many hoops to exorcise this character completely for the sake of brevity.

If we read American Fiction as it pushes us to — a black story not always concerned with ‘blackness’ — what do we have? A man forced into a job he can’t stand to care for his family and make ends meet. It's a solid drama, although the comedy outperforms the drama so much that it can feel lopsided. Several times you’ll watch one scene ramp up momentum to end on a hilarious line and find the next one doesn’t care the baton nearly as far. The cinematography is relatively tame although there are some great framing moments (you guessed it) in the comedy side of the film.

Armed with this knowledge, you should know that if you watch the trailer you're only seeing half of the movie. It's the better half, and it is absolutely hilarious, but it isn't the whole story. The whole story is a little rough around the edges but still lands the plane in making sure Monk's wild ride is driven by relatable means in a realistic world.