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‘American Fiction’ (Blu-ray review)

Warner Bros.


Cord Jefferson– who penned an episode of the inventive (if somewhat reductive) sequel to Alan Moore’s Watchmen— has settled into the director’s chair, adapting for his debut directorial feature Percival Everett’s Erasure, and it’s a treat of a film– funny without being laugh out loud, intense without pratfalling into standard-issue melodrama, wry clear-eyed skeptical of whatever happens to be trending on socmed.

The novel was written in 2001, the film updated as minimally as possible; what pleasures can be had are mostly the old-fashioned kind, more character-driven chuckles than slapstick guffaws.

The more conventionally titled American Fiction follows one Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a highly acclaimed modestly successful writer.
‘Highly acclaimed’ because he cares about subtlety and structure and the well-turned phrase, ‘modestly successful’ because he refuses to cater to what the public expects from an African-American novelist.
Now he’s entering the twilight of his career with little more to show than a few well-reviewed titles, a professorship on shaky terms (Monk tends to intimidate his more politically sensitive students), and a family he’s managed to alienate over the years.
Doesn’t help that Monk keeps seeing the dustcover of fellow black but younger (and far more attractive) writer Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) whose runaway bestseller We’s Lives in Da Ghetto is drenched in black stereotypes, providing the final impetus for Monk to respond to what he feels is a parody of black writing by writing a parody of his own: My Pafology, about a young buck fresh out of prison confronting his deadbeat dad, his drug addiction, and his gangsta past. He submits the manuscript to his previously unenthusiastic publishers, pleased at his own joke, only to have his bluff called: the publishers offer $750 thousand for the book.
Now what? We get an excerpt of Pafology (retitled Fuck as a result of one of many attempts at self-sabotage) with the characters acting out their lines in front of Monk while he’s transcribing their dialogue, and it’s every bit as overwrought as Monk (or you) might imagine, a cross between Oedipus Rex and Boyz n the Hood. Monk has to deal with the suddenly more complex cross-currents of his life, negotiating between his newfound success, a sudden crisis within his family, and his own well-encrusted sense of self-respect.
The results are often insightful and honestly played, no small thanks to a wonderful cast– Wright in what may be the role of his career; Sterling K. Brown as Monk’s younger and often surprisingly smarter brother; Erika Alexander as the quietly beautiful Coraline; Myra Lucretia Taylor as the family’s sweetheart housekeeper Lorraine. The plot doesn’t so much surprise you as it does deftly sidestep cliches, or play into them in ways that pull one’s lips into a rueful often involuntary smile.
Not sure we can call American Fiction a great film though.
I haven’t read Erasure, but from what I can gather we get more of Fuck in Everett’s novel; the staging of Fuck onscreen was nicely done, and I’d like to have seen more of that as well– in fact wondered if maybe Boots Riley could have directed, and lent it some of his wilder visual and comic inventions (probably not; Riley has strong ideas about the black experience, and I’m not sure they synch well with Jefferson’s or Everett’s).
I’d like to have seen more of Monk’s swaggering alter-ego Stagg R. Leigh, though what I’ve seen of Monk’s own accelerating personal trajectory seems entertainment enough. I think I understand the decisions made with the adaptation– narratives within narratives are often easier to realize on paper than on the big screen (see Cloud Atlas) and Jefferson opted to go the John Huston route– just tell the story straight, and allow metaphors and symbols to form freely in the audience’s heads.
If there’s a serious flaw to American Fiction I’d say it’s in the lack of a style matching the script’s humanely literate tone– something full of long takes, perhaps mis-en-scene with a theatrical flair (briefly realized in the excerpt).
I don’t mean fast editing and visual pyrotechnics; Jean Renoir in Rules of the Game used a camera gliding sideways to capture different layers of action happening along different layers of society (and on occasion between layers, adding to the chaos), much like a collection of ant farms assembled before the lens to take in all at once. Not asking for the resurrection of Renoir, just his reincarnation in more modern guise.
But I’m being greedy. An understated well-written well-realized script is wonder enough nowadays, and I’m happy for this small miracle. One of the better films of 2023.
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