.Jeffrey Wright Delivers in Hilarious Satire ‘American Fiction’

Don’t believe everything you read, warns the uproarious comedy about the literary marketplace

In the provocative new movie American Fiction, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a university professor and novelist, finds himself in a pair of pertinent modern-day cultural predicaments. First, the professor (played by Jeffrey Wright) has trouble relating to one of his students over his ironic lit-crit reference to the taboo “N” word, as used by writer Flannery O’Connor in the title of one of her short stories. 

That’s not the only reason why Monk—his family’s playful nickname for him—feels a bit behind the times. His otherwise well-reviewed novels don’t sell very well, probably because they’re too academic for the current literary marketplace. The public seems to prefer something easier to understand. Case in point is the best-selling new book by another Black author, Sintara Golden (portrayed by Issa Rae): We’s Lives in da Ghetto.

To Monk’s dismay, Golden’s fictional portrait of stereotypical Black underclass characters appears to be the epitome of a dumbed-down sell-out, ostensibly “raw” and “real,” but evidently calculatedly written for the eyes of white book publishers eager to appease guilt-ridden readers. But in any case, it is ideal fodder for daytime TV talk shows and quickie movie deals.

Monk, who comes from a Massachusetts family of accomplished Black professionals, is so contemptuous and envious of the Golden book’s success that he shelves his latest project, a reworking of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus’ The Persians. In its place he hurriedly types up his own cartoonish “in da hood” novel and calls it My Pafology.

The bitterest of satires, it’s written under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, who is billed as a “wanted fugitive,” in an effort to avoid in-person or televised appearances. Of course, the new book instantly becomes a major hit.

It should go without saying that first-time screenwriter/director Cord Jefferson—adapting the novel Erasure by Percival Everett—is playing with gasoline and matches in the story of Monk’s idealistic journey through present-day America’s contentious pop-culture scene.

For those interested in following the breadcrumb trail, Monk’s My Pafology—onscreen in American Fiction and in Everett’s book—purportedly satirizes the 1996 novel Push, by Sapphire (a.k.a. Ramona Lofton), which in turn was adapted into Lee Daniels’ 2009 movie, Precious. Back in the day, the latter two titles formed a double header of urgent social-problem scenarios, conveyed in grits-and-gravy “ghetto-ese” dialect, that became the subjects of numerous social commentary essays as well as admiring reviews.

Jefferson and Wright’s protagonist Monk Ellison in American Fiction, however, is determined to take a superior position to all this, even as his embarrassing creation makes him rich and famous for doing the very things he makes fun of. Oh, the irony.

Life is not all soapbox oratory for Monk. He’s got his own tangled social life to deal with, including his mother (Leslie Uggams) slowly slipping into dementia; his kindred-spirit sister (Tracee Ellis Ross, in real life the daughter of singer Diana Ross); his coke-addicted gay brother (Sterling K. Brown, in a standout performance), who instantly sees through every one of Monk’s desperate rationalizations; and his girlfriend (Erika Alexander), who has her doubts.

Meanwhile Jeffrey Wright, who has played everything from slippery spies to fall guys in a career as one of the screen’s most incisive character actors, enjoys one of the best-written roles of the year, as a man forced to live with a success he finds ridiculous and shameful.

Filmmaker Jefferson, a veteran TV writer, reserves his most hilarious contempt for the publishing and entertainment-biz hustlers who unquestioningly lap up “Stagg R. Leigh’s” absurd stratagems: Monk’s agent (John Ortiz); the publisher’s flunkies (Miriam Shor, Michael Cyril Creighton); the literary-award hacks; a Hollywood cheapo horror director (Adam Brody); and an insipid talk-show host (Megan Robinson).

They all smell money. But in the end, the odor that lingers in Monk Ellison’s nostrils is the sweet smell of success. To see American Fiction is to believe it.

In theaters.

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