American Fiction Review

Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction is the most sophisticated, and moving comedy of the year, with superb acting by Jeffrey Wright.

PLOT: A black university professor (Jeffrey Wright) who’s frustrated that all of his non-race related books are being deemed “black” writes a stereotypical, deliberately bad novel about “the hood,” and, to his dismay, it becomes a cultural phenomenon and best-seller.

REVIEW: American Fiction could have been didactic and heavy-handed. Indeed, it has a lot to say about race and how the black narratives that go mainstream overwhelmingly follow a predictable route (being about the hood or slavery). Still, it does so in a humane, often hilarious way. Writer-director Cord Jefferson, adapting the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, has made one of the year’s most sophisticated satires, albeit one with a big heart and an empathetic core. While a film about race, there’s also a universal side to it, with it being concerned not only with how other people see us but also with how we see ourselves.

Jeffrey Wright gets one of his best roles as “Monk,” a university professor who’s just been put on a sabbatical after ridiculing the students in his class who take issue with him teaching a book with the N-word in the title. In the wake of a family tragedy, he goes back to his childhood home to take care of his mother (Leslie Uggams), who’s struggling with dementia. He writes a stereotypical hood opus due to his frustration with the kinds of books that are outselling him under a pseudonym. The book, which he titles “F*ck,” quickly sells for a boatload of money. Given that his mother needs pricy, around-the-clock care and that his two siblings (Tracee Ellis Ross and Sterling K. Brown) are in the middle of expensive divorces, he has no choice but to take the money and run. Naturally, the book becomes a cultural phenomenon, with a Hollywood mega-producer (Adam Brody) eager to turn it into a movie, forcing Monk to take on a dual role as the fugitive “gangsta” author pseudonym he wrote the book as.

american fiction review

While it sounds almost slapstick via that description, American Fiction, while funny, is more concerned with the dynamics of Monk’s family than what’s happening with his book. While that’s a big part of the movie, Monk’s frayed relationships give the film its heart – particularly with his siblings. He has an easy time with his older sister, Tracee Ellis Ross’s Lisa, a doctor at a women’s clinic. However, an unthinkable tragedy forces him to rely on the family’s black sheep, his brother Cliff (played by Sterling K. Brown). 

A handsome plastic surgeon, Cliff is on the outs with his family once his wife leaves him after finding him in bed with another man. While Monk accepts him, their increasingly ill mother does not, making her care something Monk has to deal with alone. His only refuge is a sweet relationship he begins with his mother’s neighbour, Coraline (played by Erika Alexander), but his raging ego and insecurity threaten to derail that, too.

Wright has never been better than he is here, with him often quite funny as the buttoned-up, cynical and depressed Monk. We see him come to life a bit as he flirts with Coraline, but Wright plays him as a man who will always be his worst enemy, as he can’t let go of the fact that other people perceive things differently than him and that he’s not always right. Brown also has a fantastic role in this, with him having a blast as Cliff, who, while finally out of the closet, still indulges in self-destructive, coke-fuelled behaviour thanks to the fact that he ties up so much of his self-worth to what his mother thinks of him. If the movie has a message, it’s that we need to let that kind of baggage go and live our best lives the way we see fit.

Again, though, this could have been a soapy-tear jerker in the wrong hands (with the film relentlessly mocking such films, including the work of Tyler Perry), but Jefferson, a writer on Succession, knows how to give this some serious edge. He indulges in a bit of dark social satire, such as a throwaway gag celebrating “black stories” on a Lifetime-style channel that’s just cuts of slaves being whipped and drive-by. American Fiction does say a lot about the kinds of black stories mainstream and white audiences are used to seeing (mainly due to them being the only kinds Hollywood sells). This aspires to be something different because it’s a “regular” movie that, while definitely about race, isn’t ONLY about race. 

Stephen King recommends the comedy drama American Fiction, starring Jeffrey Wright, as a terrific, warmhearted film

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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.