Film Pick of the Week: American Fiction - review by Yvette Huddleston

American FictionAmazon Prime, review by Yvette Huddleston

Based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, this smart comedy-drama from TV writer and debut feature film director Cord Jefferson is a deft, funny and thought-provoking satire.

Theolonius ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a humanities professor at a west coast university. Also a published author, Ellison has written a number of highbrow literary novels that have neither made him any money nor brought him much acclaim. He is frustrated by the fact that, as he sees it, many of the books written by fellow African-American writers that do get noticed and do well commercially are stories of Black victimhood and play into Black stereotypes.

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After he upsets some of his students by sharing these views, it is suggested by his colleagues that he take a leave of absence. It could be an opportunity to write but he feels uninspired. Then he is moved to action when a new novel, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto by up-and-coming young Black author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), becomes an instant bestseller. Ellison believes that her book, and others like it, reduce the Black experience to stories about poverty, trauma and crime. This infuriates him as he feels strongly that Black writers who produce this kind of work are pandering to the wishes of white gatekeepers in the publishing industry.

Jeffrey Wright as Theolonius 'Monk' Ellison in American Fiction.Jeffrey Wright as Theolonius 'Monk' Ellison in American Fiction.
Jeffrey Wright as Theolonius 'Monk' Ellison in American Fiction.

To make a point, Ellison writes a spoof crime novel, My Pafology, which is full of the kind of tropes that enrage him, under the pseudonym of Stagg R Leigh. To his surprise, and to the delight of his agent, once the manuscript is sent out it is picked up by a mainstream publisher who offers him a whopping $750,000 advance, the largest he has ever received. Despite his misgivings, circumstances in his personal life – his ageing mother needs expensive medical care – mean he has to accept. Then his book is nominated for a major prize and his alter ego is required to do some publicity – which is when he and his agent explain that Stagg R Leigh is actually a fugitive criminal…

Running alongside this is the exploration of Monk’s complicated relationship with his high-achieving middle-class family. Over the years he has managed to alienate both his caring clinician sister Lisa (Tracee Ross Ellis) and his troubled plastic surgeon brother Cliff (Sterling K Brown). Monk is a complex character – he is prickly, closed off, an intellectual snob – and it is a wonderfully nuanced and affecting performance from Wright.

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