American Fiction is not just one of the best comedies this year but Cord Jefferson’s feature debut is one of the best films of the year.
Jefferson’s script is based on the novel, Erasure, by Percival Everett. I learned during the exclusive Critics Choice Association press conference that Jefferson also incorporates his own experiences into the script. In any event, the novel is over two decades old but painfully still relevant today. Jefferson asks some very important questions about American culture’s fascination with Black trauma? Where Jeffrey Wright absolutely crushes the performance as a college professor-author, it’s not unfair to say that this role does not typically draw the same type of awards acclaim as slaves. All one needs to do is take a look at previous Oscar nominations for the roles in which Black people earn nominations. Of course, there are the rare films that stay away from the cliché roles such as King Richard.
English literature professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) struggles to fit the concepts that many people have about race. As if that isn’t enough to worry about, he also has to deal with his mother’s declining health. There are some other things but I will not dive into them because of spoilers. Anyway, his previously writing wasn’t “Black enough” so he writes a outlandish novel relying on the very tropes that he finds offensive. I love how we get to see the scenes play out of characters talking back to the author. This really says something about the writing process. Anyway, Monk is asked to be on the jury a prestigious book award, only to learn that he own novel–with a pseudonym-is submitted for consideration. Oh, the comedy that writes itself in this situation!
Monk is the eldest of three siblings in his family. His sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), is an OB-GYN while younger brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) is a surgeon and black sheep of the family. An unfortunate tragedy brings the family together while matriarch Agnes (Leslie Uggams) further declines in her health. Monk adds looking after her to everything else while starting a relationship with beach house neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander).
The people with the decision-making power could do a better job at making the decisions. It is certainly not unfair to suggest that people have their own blind spots. I myself can admit when I’m not the right person that someone should be listening to about certain films. When that’s the case, I’ll direct people to the reviews they should be reading. But anyway, I can certainly understand why an executive would greenlight another film about slaves. It’s for the same reason that they continually greenlight films about the Holocaust. I understand why Jefferson would like to see less films about Black trauma. I, too, would like to see less films about Jewish pain and trauma. As I write this, The Zone of Interest, a Holocaust film centering on the Nazis, is opening in theaters this winter.
If there’s a takeaway from watching American Fiction, it’s that the people making decisions in the C-suite need to make better decisions about how audiences see race and identity on the screen. It’s 2023 for Pete’s sake!
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Cord Jefferson
CAST: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Keith David, with Issa Rae and Sterling K. Brown