“American Fiction” is a clever, scathing satire

Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison and Erika Alexander as Coraline walk together in the Oscar nominated “American Fiction.” Wright has been nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role at this year’s Academy Awards among the movie’s other awards. // Photo courtesy of IMDb

“If they want stereotypes, I’ll give them one.” 

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright, “The French Dispatch”) is a talented author, writing intellectual, thoughtful stories for a sophisticated audience. Writing is his calling, but he has one problem: his books don’t sell.

Publishers are not interested in his new manuscript, either. “Editors, they want a Black book,” Monk’s agent says. “They have a Black book,” Monk replies. “I’m Black, and it’s my book.” To left-wing, affluent white publishers, though, Monk’s books are not Black enough. What is Black enough is Issa Rae’s new book, “We Lives in Da Ghetto.” White critics call it “raw” and “authentic.” Monk calls it shameless pandering. 

“Look at what they publish,” he says. “Look at what they expect us to write.” 

Monk keeps sharing his manuscript, and publishers keep passing. In a fit of righteous indignation, Monk decides to stick it to the publishers and give them exactly what they want, writing “My Pafology,” a book about “deadbeat dads, rappers and crack.” It’s a bitter, pointed joke. 

Except, it works too well. “My Pafology” is just the kind of gross stereotyping publishers are looking for — in fact, they would like it better if it was just called “F**k” — and the book quickly becomes a national bestseller. A flabbergasted Monk, under the pseudonym of felon-on-the-run Stagg R. Leigh, has a hit novel he despises. 

Writer and director Cord Jefferson’s concept for “American Fiction” is one of the funniest — and most prescient — ideas for a movie in a long time. Jefferson finds his targets quickly and tears them apart, ridiculing the modern desire for “authentic stories” that are anything but. 

Jefferson makes clear that America has a fiction it wants to hear, and it isn’t reality. 

Rather than sounding preachy or abrasively didactic, Jefferson says his piece through a punchy, hilarious script. His wit permeates the dialogue with exquisite help from Wright, who gives a heartfelt performance that enhances the humor on the page. “American Fiction” never comes off as overly angry, and by the end it even acknowledges there may be value in the stories that Monk so quickly dismisses as schlock. It is no wonder the script has been nominated for an Academy Award.

Speaking of, it is fascinating that the Academy has rewarded the movie so effusively, as deserving as those rewards are. “American Fiction” is such a scathing indictment of entertainment elites that it seems like the Academy is smothering it with Oscar nominations out of pure guilt. If there is anyone that Jefferson is mocking more than the members of the Academy, they do not come to mind. Hollywood is the joke. It is a testament to the film’s quality that it has been recognized for awards as much as it has.

That quality is apparent throughout. What elevates “American Fiction” beyond just a biting comedy is the whole other side to the film quietly lurking below the surface. In the middle of his bitter satire, Jefferson subtly slips in the kind story he wants Hollywood to make: a story about people.

The other layer of “American Fiction” is a bittersweet look at an author trying to find his identity while coping with family conflict. He works to take care of his mother with dementia while navigating his relationship with his troubled brother, trying his best to let go of the anger that keeps him from becoming a more selfless, open person. “People want to love you, Monk. You should let them love all of you,” Monk’s brother says. You can see the recognition of truth in Wright’s eyes.

Wright elevates the film. His barely-noticeable changes in facial expression speak volumes for a man of few words. There seems to be a weight on his shoulders that grows as the movie goes on, and it is hard not to smile in the few moments somebody — whether it be his brother, mother or girlfriend — lifts that burden. His brother (Sterling K. Brown, “Black Panther”), also carries a deep pain not well-hidden. 

Brown lets that hurt come to the surface every time the camera moves in for a close-up. The pair complements each other well, turning these characters into three-dimensional, real people that it is impossible not to connect with. In tension with the heartache, though, is Wright and Brown’s impeccable comedic timing. The soul of the movie’s humor comes from them, and they effortlessly alternate between the somber and satirical, even if the script doesn’t always shift as gracefully.

“American Fiction,” in the end, is a human story. Jefferson gives the film a depth a lesser writer would have completely neglected. He shows Hollywood what a real “Black Story” is — simply telling a story about a Black person. No caricatures, no exaggeration. Every person has a richness to their life, and all Jefferson wants is for Hollywood to focus on that.