American Fiction (Cord Jefferson, 2023, based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett)

When Fiction Imitates Life, or vice versa

by Donato Totaro Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 8 minutes (1763 words)

American Fiction (MGM Pictures)

American Fiction is a lovely film, maybe even a beautiful film, that is about many things, ranging from the social to the aesthetic. As its title makes clear, it is a film about art and how artists must negotiate the personal and the political. In its “fiction-ness” it also shows (and is even maybe about) the seams of fiction. Let me explain. The narrative falls prey to a common screenwriting strategy that I’ll call “a condensed life” where a character experiences an unrealistic number of life changing events (or life defining, which is often why this strategy is used) in a short period of time. These are the events that occur to the lead actor Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, played by the Oscar nominated Jeffrey Wright, in the first thirty minutes of the film:

-Major Event 1: University professor Monk is reprimanded by his department Chair and colleagues for the way he handles a situation in class where a student challenges his justification for teaching a novel by Flannery “O’Conner that has the N-word in its title. Echoing a similar scene in Tár, Monk’s justification is perceived as wrong by the student, who leaves the class (a new class dynamic which every university professor faces these days). He is forced by his Department to go on an unpaid leave (which sets up the financial pressures that indirectly informs some of his later decisions).

-Major Event 2: His agent Arthur (John Ortiz) updates him on his continued failure to sell his latest novel (career stagnating).

-Major Event 3: On his agent’s advice he goes to a Literary Festival in Boston, his hometown, where his presence is overwhelmed by the latest hot writer, Sintara Golden, and her smash hit We’s Lives in Da Ghetto (the title tells it all) (Monk faces a sort of public humiliation and an affrontery to his sense of good art).

-Major Event 4: He meets up with his good-natured sister Lisa (Tracey Ellis Ross), an obstetrician, and witnesses her suffer a fatal heart attack over lunch (family loss, grief).

-Major Event 5: He meets his handsome brother Clifford, a plastic surgeon (probably named after American writer Clifford Odets, and played by Sterling K. Brown) who has recently stormed out of the closet and is making up for lost time by adopting a promiscuous lifestyle (Thelonious must deal with what he feels is his brother’s irresponsible life style).

-Major Event 6: On the home front Monk’s mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) is showing advanced signs of cognitive decline which, with the daughter out of the picture and Clifford unwilling to help, places the financial and emotional toil of putting their mother in a residence fully on Thelonious’ shoulders (more financial pressure and emotional stress).

-Major Event 7: Thelonious meets Agnes’s new neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander), a defense lawyer who happens to be available and willing (cue prickly romance).  

That is a lot of stuff in a short time. The ‘condensed life’ narrative. And more major events happen after this point. Their longtime nanny Lorraine (Myra Lucretta Taylor) bumps into an old flame, Maynard (Raymond Anthony Thomas), and a few scenes later they marry. And of course the final defining moment: under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh Monk writes what he perceives to be an awful parody novel written completely in Ebonics filled with the worse possible African American stereotypes, in the style of Sintara’s hit novel We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, first titled My Pafology, then changed to what Monk thinks is an even worse title, Fuck, and to his shock, the novel is sold for a ton of money and optioned for a major moving picture by hotshot film producer Wiley Valdespino (named after the Spanish wine, played by Adam Brody). This improbable success recalls Mel Brook’s The Producers (1967), where screenwriters Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are shocked by the success of their made-to-flop play Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden; and Spike Lee’s 2000 Bamboozled, where TV producer Pierre Delacroix’s (Damon Wayans) grotesque mockery minstrel show becomes a sitcom hit. The parallels between American Fiction and Lee’s film are clear. Bamboozled (2000) was released around the same time as the novel that American Fiction is based on, Erasure (Percival Everett, 2001). In Bamboozled Delacroix is seen by his white colleagues as not being ‘black’ enough, so he tries to ridicule them by coming up with a modern day blackface minstrel show called “Mantan the New Millennium Minstrel Show”, but the crude joke becomes a smash ratings hit (Mantan being a reference to black Hollywood character actor Mantan Moreland).

In the case of American Fiction, this ‘condensed life’ strategy is played partly for its meta quality, if not as outright parody. It is no coincidence that the hugely popular figure of Tyler Perry is evoked in the film on two occasions, as Perry has achieved tremendous success with his broad, stereotype-filled comedy, headed by the drag nanny figure ‘Madea’ while also being a divisive figure within the African American community for what is perceived as promoting negative stereotypes. In the final scene when Clifford asks his brother Thelonious who they will hire to play him, Thelonious replies, “Tyler Perry!” 

The film ultimately surmounts these story contrivances (after all Cord Jefferson did win for best adapted screenplay at the recent Academy Awards) because it is written so damn well by director-writer Jefferson (based on the novel by Percival Everett) and performed superbly by the major and minor players. It is also very funny when it has to be and touching in its more serious moments. Like the hilarious scene where Monk begins to write his parody novel and his two main characters, father and son Willy the Wonker (the great Keith David) and Van Go Jenkins (Okieriete Onaodowan), appear in his study and ‘perform’ the very words as he writes them, even interacting with Monk. It’s a scene that could easily be transplanted into a grimy ghetto crime film of the 1990s. And some scenes are both funny and serious, like the moment where Lisa’s remains are scattered in the ocean, the solemnity of the occasion lifted by Lisa’s own funny obit.

Jeffrey Wright’s character name is telling. His first name is a reference to the great American jazz musician and composer Thelonious Monk, whose complex musical style often went far off traditional jazz norms, which echoes the character’s stubbornness to pander to popular taste. And his surname Ellison is a reference to the great American novelist, literary critic and educator Ralph Ellison (1913-1994). Ellison’s major novel, The Invisible Man (1952), features a character who seems a clear template for the Thelonious Monk character. And like Ellison, the Monk character has written very few novels in his lifetime.

Much to Monk’s horror (and equal measure good fortune, as it will alleviate his financial woes), Fuck wins a prestige Literary Award (on which Monk served as a juror) under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh (a reference to the 19th century African American murderous pimp Stagger Lee, who was immortalized in a folk song). The award ceremony forms the clever ultra-meta ending, where Monk decides to accept the award and expose his identity as the writer of Fuck. Instead the scene ends with Monk at the podium and cuts to black before he begins to speak. Over the black frame we hear the exasperated voice of producer Wiley (Adam Brody) ….”Wait, wait, there’s no resolution here!” Thelonious explains to Wiley that he prefers the story to end on this moment of ambiguity, as happened at the real event. As he did to the student in his class, Monk offers Wiley his justification, that he respects the audience to come up with their own ending and does not want to spoon feed them a moral. But the commercially oriented Wiley is having none of this and orders Monk to come up with a ‘better’ (more commercial) ending. In a sly in-joke the film title seen on the set, “Plantation Annihilation”, is written in a font similar to Paramount Pictures! The title may also be an homage to Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, which features a character doing research on a faux lost silent film starring a black lesbian actress, titled Plantation Memories.

This is where the writer-director Jefferson gets to have his cake and eat it. We are treated to two more perfectly viable endings. In the next ending Monk goes to Coraline’s home to apologize for his behavior with the aim of patching up their relationship, then the camera does a cliché styled major pull out on a drone camera, taking us to an overhead shot of the city. Wiley doesn’t like this ending either, “It’s too pat. We don’t want to make a romantic comedy….Give me something real.” Monk comes up with a third ending, more in keeping with Fuck. We are back at the podium.  As Monk announces, “I have a confession to make,” the police barge in guns cocked, profiling Monk as Stagg Leigh, the escaped fugitive. Fiction has become reality. Monk tries to explain that Stagg Leigh does not exist. Monk holds his trophy in his hand. Someone yells “He’s got a gun,” the cops fire, another black man murdered by the police. Wiley loves this version. “Perfect!” The irony is not lost on Monk, who whispers “fuck.” In the final scene of the film Clifford picks up Thelonious at the studio lot. Before they drive off Thelonious makes eye contact with a young black actor, probably a movie extra, sitting with his cell phone in hand dressed as a slave. They share a knowing compassionate stare and acknowledge each other. It is a small but telling gesture. The camera then cranes up as they drive off, recalling similar back lot scenes from La La Land.  It is interesting that on their own not one of the three endings is satisfying. Yet collectively they are. They tell the plight of the black artist always having to negotiate between expectation and desire.

American Fiction (Cord Jefferson, 2023, based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett)

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Film Reviews   black cinema   black lives matter   percival everett   reflexivity