Producers: Ben LeClair, Nikos Karamigios, Cord Jefferson and Jermaine Johnson Director: Cord Jefferson Screenplay: Cord Jefferson and Percival Everett Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, Adam Brody, Keith David, Okieriete Onaodowan, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Raymond Anthony Thomas, Miriam Shor, J.C. MacKenzie, Patrick Fischler, John Ales, Michael Cyril Creighton, Neal Lerner, Jenn Harris, Bates Wilder and Ryan Richard Doyle Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
After toiling in television writing rooms for a decade, Cord Jefferson attempts a difficult balancing act in his first feature, an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” for which the author himself collaborated on the script and Jefferson took on directing duties for the first time. At once a satire of liberal white America’s stereotyping of the black experience and a domestic drama about the reality of that experience, “American Fiction” doesn’t manage to juggle its disparate plotlines effortlessly, and is a mite too genteel in tone for its own good, but overall it proves a winning debut.
Much of the success is attributable to a skillfully modulated, laid-back performance by Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an author and academic who runs into trouble with the English faculty at the college after he confronts a white student in his class who claims to be offended by his writing the title of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Artificial Nigger” on the board. At a departmental meeting where he trades insults with a hostile colleague (Patrick Fischler) while the wimpy chair (John Ales) tries to maintain order, the defensive Monk is told that he’s being put on leave.
His first order of business is to attend a conference where he encounters Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), who’s being feted for her novel “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” which strikes him as an example of the sort of “black literature” that’s embraced by the supposed literati as truthful and incisive but he sees as condescending and unrepresentative of the variety of African-American experience—like his own upper-middle-class upbringing. In his frustration at having his latest novel rejected by his publisher for not being “black” enough, he pens a parody of the drugs-and-gangsta genre that he calls “My Pafology” and ascribes to one Stagg R. Leigh (as he writes, Keith David and Okieriete Onaodowan appear in his imagination as the warring father-son duo in the book). He insists that his genial agent Arthur (the engaging John Ortiz) submit it to publishers, assuming that it will be recognized as a joke.
It isn’t. A firm offers big bucks for the publishing rights, and its chief representative (Miriam Shor) and marketing head (Michael Cyril Creighton) enthuse over its “honesty”—and its potential profits. When they insist on meeting Leigh, Arthur, himself anxious for success, persuades Monk to impersonate Leigh, explaining that he can only do so via Zoom, because he’s a wanted fugitive and when a hot Hollywood producer-director appropriately named Wiley (Adam Brody) buys the movie rights and wants to meet the author personally, he has to carry the impersonation further, into a restaurant. (The publisher reps indicate that Michael B. Jordan is interested in starring, and suggest that they might do a movie tie-in cover with the actor wearing, as Monk looks on incredulously, a durag.)
The satire is extended as Monk is asked by Carl Brunt (J.C. MacKenzie), the head of a New England book award program that’s been criticized for its lack of diversity, to join the jury that will choose the year’s winner. He’ll join Sintara and three others—Wilson (Neal Lerner), Ailene (Jenn Harris) and Daniel (Bates Wilder), all white—on the panel, and is astonished when his own parody book, now retitled (at his own suggestion) “Fuck,” is submitted. He and Sintara are outvoted to give it the prize: they find it pandering and phony, while the others acclaim it as gritty and piercingly real. That leads to the award ceremony where Monk must decide whether to reveal the truth, and to a finale on a Hollywood sound stage where he and Wiley argue over how the movie should end.
What’s remarkable about all this is that one might expect all this to be presented in an edgy, angry way, but it isn’t. Jefferson, Wright and the others bring out the humor, but in a remarkably gentle, even generous fashion; the publishing reps, white jury members and even Wiley are presented as obtuse and even fatuous, but they’re not mean-spirited, merely smugly misguided. And Monk himself is depicted as flawed himself, not only in the way he sees himself (he berates a hapless bookstore clerk played by Richard Ryan Doyle for putting his novels in a section titled “African-American Voices” rather than the “Fiction” shelves, and must admit his misjudgment of Sintara) but especially in his relationships with his family.
That constitutes the second portion of “American Fiction,” in which Monk reconnects with his Boston roots. After years of distancing himself, he returns to find his divorced sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), a doctor, struggling to care for their widowed mother Agnes (Leslie Ellison), who’s showing signs of increasing dementia. Death intervenes, which brings the return of their brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), divorced after announcing that he’s gay—something Lisa has refused to accept. And room is found for other subplots—the revelation of a family secret regarding Monk’s deceased father; Monk’s romance with Coraline (Erika Alexander), a lawyer with whom he sometimes disagrees; another between the family’s longtime housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and Maynard (Raymond Anthony Thomas), a gregarious cop. This section of the film dovetails with the satirical one—Monk’s going along with the farcical reaction to his book is tied to his need for the money to pay for Agnes’ medical treatment—but more fundamentally it’s designed to show how his domestic reality doesn’t fit the common portrayal of African-American life in the entertainment media.
Of course, blending the two parts of the film requires a delicate touch, and Jefferson doesn’t prove himself entirely deft in the task. There are points where the conjunctions are a bit off, where the pacing is somewhat off, where the tone isn’t quite on target.
Yet the failings are minor beside the general success of the whole. With Wright leading the way, the cast is solid across the board, even minor characters coming across strongly. And while the film won’t win any technical awards, the production design (Jonathan Guggenheim), costumes (Rudy Mance), cinematography (Cristina Dunlop) and editing (Hilda Rasula) are all more than competent. Laura Karpman’s score doesn’t always feel as finely judged as it might be, and is occasionally just too obtrusive, but it’s not a terrible flaw.
One can imagine a Spike Lee taking on this material with ferocity, but that’s not Jefferson’s way. In its calmer, more reflective, more good-natured way, “American Fiction” makes its points in a package more comfortable than aggressive. You might not agree with that choice, but it mostly works.