American Fiction Review

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Has Hollywood “solved” its diversity problem? The optimistic answer is that the industry has taken the first steps. The protagonist of American Fiction might argue that nothing has changed. While we are seeing more portrayals of “the Black experience,” most of them still seem to center on slaves and young men from underprivileged neighborhoods. Occasionally we’ll get a biopic about a Black trailblazer or civil rights activist, but there’s a 50% chance it’ll end in their assassination. American Fiction raises the questions that society is either too uncomfortable to ask or never thought to ask. The film is a critique of Black portrayals in pop culture, but it’s just as much a meditation on the white guilt and the universal creative process.

Jeffrey Wright has been one of our best and most underappreciated character actors for decades. More people thankfully seem to be recognizing him as one of the greats. Wright gives a cynical yet empathetic performance as “Monk” Ellison, a writer who’s continually rejected by publishers looking for the next Precious. Where publishers tell Monk that his writing isn’t “Black enough,” his students can’t handle him discussing the n-word in class. Following a death in the family, Monk returns home to look after his ailing mother (Leslie Uggams). Receiving little help from his gay slacker brother (Sterling K. Brown), Monk is compelled to write a bestseller.

One can only imagine how Spike Lee or the late John Singleton would respond to the book that Monk churns out. Although Monk views his work as a self-aware exercise of Black stereotypes, publishers and even Hollywood directors view it as a deep, personal story. Monk goes along with the charade to pay for his mother’s medical bills, although he insists on using a pseudonym. Writer/director Cord Jefferson has worked on some of the century’s sharpest TV shows, from The Good Place to Watchmen. In his feature debut, Jefferson delivers an endlessly witty screenplay ripe with clever commentary on Black media. Yet, American Fiction doesn’t attack filmmakers like Lee and Singleton either.

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Some of the movie’s best scenes are between Wright and Issa Rae, who plays Monk’s bestselling rival, Sintara Golden. Monk thinks that he has Sintara all figured out after hearing a passage from her book, which reads like Sapphire fan fiction. He finds, however, that Sintara shares many of his views, fleshing out the nuances of both characters. Monk initially sees Sintara as somebody exploiting Black stereotypes. The audience comes to see her as a passionate writer who sincerely believes these stories need to be told. We agree with Monk that there should be room for more types of “Black stories.” At the same time, Monk is so stubborn about his work that he comes off as the narrow-minded one.

This builds to a resolution that doesn’t quite strike a satisfying note, although that might be the idea. American Fiction understands that the issues it raises can’t be solved in one movie, no matter how smart it is. Rarely does a book or movie get made without making compromises. The result might not be everything you envisioned, but sometimes a happy medium is the best you can ask for. One can only hope that American Fiction inspires other filmmakers and Hollywood at large. For now, we can be grateful for this funny, wise, and provocative movie about what it means to be an artist.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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