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American Fiction Spares No One

Cord Jefferson’s film starring Jeffrey Wright skewers American publishing—and its main character.

Claire Folger/courtesy of Orion Pictures
Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction”

“OK, let’s begin.” American Fiction opens with Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) intoning that phrase to his students on a nameless California college campus, as he initiates a discussion of Faulkner—only to have his seminar derailed by an overly sensitive white undergraduate who complains about the presence of the “n-word” in the novels. After Monk brusquely instructs her to “get over it,” the college suspends him from teaching duties for the rest of the semester. This ridiculous and yet sadly predictable gambit—an institution privileging a white adolescent’s discomfort around Blackness over that of a fiftysomething African American man, for whom race is a lived reality—establishes the film’s willingness to mock the pieties that surround the politics of race in the USA in the twenty-first century.

Although American Fiction opens on campus, the film reveals itself to be an unflinching and seriously funny examination of how the alchemy of race operates throughout the USA’s culture industry. Directed and adapted by Cord Jefferson from Percival Everett’s acclaimed 2001 novel, Erasure, the film centers on the high-strung Monk—the eldest son of an overachieving if emotionally distant African American family. In the first half of the film, Monk cuts a frustrated figure as he attempts to reconnect with his younger siblings—sister Lisa (Tracey Ellis Ross) and brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), both medical doctors—as they bicker lovingly about how best to care for their aged and ailing mother, Agnes (the radiant Leslie Uggams).

Monk supposedly “doesn’t believe in race” and writes metafictional reinterpretations of Greek tragedies that almost no one reads. But when tragedy strikes the Ellison clan, he begins to write My Pafology by Stagg R. Leigh, a short novel intended to parody the runaway success of his literary bête noir Sintara Golden’s We Lives in Da Ghetto. Monk telegraphs his rather heavy-handed intentions for My Pafology when he confesses to his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), that he wants to intentionally “rub” the culture industry’s “noses in” their uncritical acceptance of limiting and dated Black stereotypes. Of course, the targets of his satire in the publishing world—unable to comprehend irony when it’s deployed by a Black author—engage in a bidding war for My Pafology. Weighed down by familial obligations and curious about how far he can take his performance as Stagg R. Leigh, Monk abandons his high-minded anti-commercial values and decides to run with it.

American Fiction might have remained a relatively straightforward satire of American publishing but instead engages a more unusual genre. “Afrosurrealist life is fluid, filled with aliases and census-defying classifications,” the poet and essayist D. Scott Miller has written, and Jefferson shifts the film into this mode when Monk embraces his performance as Stagg R. Leigh. Interestingly, the supposedly stock characters from My Pafology refuse to remain pawns in Monk’s scheme, and two of them—Van Go Jenkins (Okieriete “Oak” Onoadowan) and Willy the Wonker (Keith David)—spring fully formed from Monk’s computer screen to question their creator about their dialogue and motivations. Their interjections make the film not simply an interrogation of the publishing industry but also an examination of Monk’s complicity in its cultural fictions.

The Ellison family embodies a different kind of Black authenticity from that which typically transfixes the gatekeepers of American popular culture. But since so many white people remain stubbornly unaware of the historical existence of upwardly mobile African Americans, their reality seems more fanciful than that of Stagg R. Leigh and his clichéd creations. We see this when the family gathers behind their Cape Cod beach house and one of their white neighbors jogs by, does a double take, and begins to lecture them on their conduct before Cliff gruffly runs him off and confesses to the group that he never liked the neighbor even when they were kids.

Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) understands this and thus makes the decision to research those less fortunate than her in order to tell their story. But when Monk confronts his nemesis at a panel where they are the only two Black people debating the year’s best fiction, he is surprised that Golden reveals herself to be a sensitive and intelligent reader of both the African American canon and the literary marketplace, as evidenced by the book she’s reading in the scene. In a lesser film, the confrontation between Monk and Golden might have generated histrionic clichés about racial authenticity and artistic intention. Instead American Fiction leaves both Monk and his audience to ponder the merits of Golden’s approach to her craft.

As Monk, Jeffrey Wright offers perhaps the most fully rounded performance of his storied career. Monk’s frustration with the overwhelmingly white world of NYC publishing is palpable during the three-sided exchanges between him and Arthur and the publishing doyenne Paula Bateman (Miriam Shor). Monk plays up his alter ego by swearing at Bateman and making a series of ridiculous demands. Tellingly, Stagg R. Leigh’s aggression toward Bateman evokes from her both a thrilled enthusiasm and nervous diffidence that was notably absent when her imprint rejected Monk’s more esoteric novels. While Monk revels in his telephonic exchanges with Bateman, his public performances as Stagg R. Leigh are marked by a paranoiac caution, as if his body rejects the contortions he’s demanding of it. When Monk meets the culture vulture and self-styled auteur Wiley (Adam Brody), he transmits his weariness through darting eyes, hunched shoulders, and a knowing diffidence, until the moment when Monk unceremoniously abandons Wiley at a pricey restaurant, fleeing out of fear that Wiley will see through him. To Monk’s surprise, his defensive performance as Stagg R. Leigh convinces Wiley to offer a seven-figure sum for the film rights to My Pafology. It is fitting that Wright—who like the character he plays had failed to receive the recognition his talents deserve—earned his first Golden Globe nomination this week and seems likely to earn his first Academy Award nomination for this role.

While Wright is a known quantity, Cord Jefferson shows himself to be an emerging filmmaker of prodigious talents. Jefferson first demonstrated his abilities to reinterpret celebrated books with his Emmy award–winning work on HBO’s Watchmen, and it is to his immense credit that he keeps the vertiginous and surrealist elements of American Fiction so firmly under his control. The tensions between the difficult and pampered Agnes and her estranged adult children could easily curdle into caricature, but Jefferson enables his cast to invest these relationships with a familial warmth and a mocking affection that feels all too real. When the film introduces Cliff, he mocks his older brother with a famous quote from The Color Purple, but later when the two speak frankly about their deceased father’s infidelities and how his lack of care fractured their family, Cliff forgives Monk’s myopia with a sardonic tenderness rarely granted Black men in film. Similarly, Monk’s vexed relationship to race could easily become self-loathing in the hands of a less assured director. But Jefferson expertly contrasts Monk’s middle-aged neurosis—at one point he carefully buttons his shirt and knots his tie after having sex—with the obvious pleasure he derives from getting one over on the publishing industry. It is a credit to actor and director that Monk comes across as an extremely difficult person but one who remains somehow both plausible and likable.

Percival Everett’s Erasure is about ambition and desire as sublimated through the academy and the literary marketplace, while Jefferson’s American Fiction orients itself more toward family, the (missed) connections between readers and writers, artists, and the myriad absurdities of contemporary life. But ultimately both novel and film are about racial commodification, about how the attempt to capture uncomfortable but necessary truths about Black life in the USA can so easily be reduced to reassuring pablum or trite trauma.

Jefferson’s familiarity with the world of high-achieving Black people whose résumés refute notions of ghetto pathology means that he’s able to fully realize even minor characters like Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), the Ellison family’s longtime housekeeper, and Coraline (Erika Alexander), Monk’s amatory neighbor in Cape Cod. Coraline’s frank interest in Monk mirrors his surprise that she’s read several of his novels and suggests that perhaps his work has in fact been finding its intended audience. While some of the misunderstandings of the Obama era now seem quaint, Jefferson allows us to see how seemingly small issues that revolve around race and class and gender must be understood as part of the malignancy of a voracious capitalism ever on the hunt for new things to commodify. Indeed, the passage of time has allowed the film to be more audacious in its satire than the novel, with a few hilarious moments lifted directly from the mocking one-upmanship that characterizes Black Twitter.

So much has changed since January 2001, when Erasure was published: the rise of social media, the end not just of Oprah’s book club but also her syndicated talk show, the unlikely election of Barack Obama followed by the even more improbable election of Donald Trump, the end of Roe and affirmative action, and the collapse of a seemingly stable liberalism that ordered life in the USA and abroad. Then there’s the rise of Black capitalism, the reality that talented African Americans—people like Oprah and Michael Jordan and Jay-Z and Rihanna and Lebron James—might actually become not just fabulously wealthy but full-fledged members of the billionaire class.

And yet the question that lives at the heart of American Fiction remains vital, even as the very idea of “selling out” has faded into irrelevance: How should Black Americans represent themselves if selling one’s brand—which is to say one’s idea of Black identity—has now achieved near universal currency? And what should we do when those outside the Black community so eagerly consume, imitate, and profit from what we are selling?