“American Fiction” is a hilarious must-see movie that delivers as many laughs as it does moments of poignancy. Jeffery Wright, most known as a prolific actor usually in supporting roles, is refreshingly the lead here. He stars as Monk, a California-based frustrated novelists-turned even more frustrated English professor. His books are good, not popular or profitable. While attending a writing conference in his hometown of Boston, he is painfully reminded of what he sees as the marginalized position of Black authors within literary circles. He is equal parts fed up with the publishing industry’s promotion of and its profits from books that perpetrate negative stereotypes. Monk is plagued with the nagging feeling that in order for him to achieve any financial success or professional notoriety, he must submit to the pervasive expectations- Black authors can only write Black stories full of trauma and drama.
All this angst leads to what he thought would be exacting revenge on the publishing industry. As such, he submits to Arthur, his agent (John Ortiz) a bogus, quickly thrown together mediocre novel brimming with what he considers blood curdling tropes- deadbeat dads, rappers and crack. Initially, Arthur was mortified and quick to discourage Monk from trying to make a social statement in the form of what could only be a failed experiment that could hurt his already lackluster writing career. But Monk is determined to go all in at rubbing their noses in their unfair system. He and Arthur agree to disagree and compromise by creating a pseudonym and fugitive, bad ass persona. To both their surprise and his agents delight, the manuscript illicit swift responses from the publishing world: Instead of outrage, a bidding war ensues.
The white establishment not only does not register Monk’s intended point, but the winning publisher loves the book, fast tracks it to print and secures a movie deal. For better or worse, Monk and his alter ego- Stagg R. Leigh- is finally poised for success. All the while, Monk must maintain his new found literary persona and keep the publishing windfall a secret from everyone. Normally, Monk is known to maintain physical and emotional distance from his family, but while in town and his secret professional windfall is quickly unfolding, he is thrust into major family issues he cannot avoid. He finds himself in the caregiving role to his mother ( Leslie Uggams) that in times past was undertaken by his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross). Complicated by is mother’s declining health is the lack of support from his brother (Sterling K. Brown) in the matter, and a seemingly false start to a new romance. The family aspect of the movie wonderfully offer additional humor to the already hilarious take on the book world and society’s obsessions with stereotypes. Refreshingly and commendably Monk’s family and romance woes usher in a layer of complexity and humanity that is unexpected.
Jeffrey Wright, long known for heavy-hitting dramatic roles like “Basquiat,” “Angels in America,” “The Ides of March,” just to name a very few, has of late been showcasing his comedic chops in movies such as “Game Night” and Wes Anderson films, like “French Dispatch” and “Asteroid City,” and we’re all better off for it. With “American Fiction” he wonderfully heads up this ensemble cast that includes Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown, John Ortiz and Erika Alexander. Wright does multiple one-on-one scenes with each of these actors, and you would be hard pressed to pick a favorite with each landing pitch perfect comedic and sometimes tender exchanges.
“American Fiction” would work as a solidly good comedy, If there were only the one story/plot of Monk’s reluctant turn of events in his career and the circumstances leading up to it. The script-writing and cast are strong enough to deliver on the comedy front alone. This includes Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) as Monk’s author nemesis who is seemingly pandering to or victim of the narrow-minded establishment. The fact that debut writer-director Cord Jefferson, along with co-writer Percival Everett layered in a tender subplot of familial relations, love, loss and identity, is a bonus that takes the movie from just entertaining to exceptional.