American Fiction review – A hilarious and often heartfelt debut
Cord Jefferson directs American Fiction. The film stars Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, and Keith David.
Jeffrey Wright has had a hugely varied career spanning blockbusters like The Hunger Games, James Bond and Batman franchises and multiple films with Wes Anderson. His latest star vehicle is American Fiction, the debut feature film from Cord Jefferson, who has previously worked on acclaimed TV series including Succession, Watchmen and The Good Place. Across his TV work, he has shown an ability to deftly balance Comedy and Drama, something that naturally lends itself here with a satire of African American culture, at times laugh-out-loud funny but also a story with more depth than may first appear and a nuanced performance from Wright. The film is adapting Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. It won the prestigious People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, cementing it as one to look out for during awards season.
Thelonious Ellison, nicknamed Monk, is a professor in LA and writer of several mildly successful novels. While his books have been praised in critical circles, they have sold poorly, and publishers reject his most recent attempt to break the literary market for not being “black enough”. He can prove abrasive with his students over racial discussions, and the bulk of the film sees him returning to his native Boston to spend time with his sister, mother and estranged brother Cliff (Sterling K Brown).
Monk goes to a reading from celebrated novelist Sinatra Gorden of her novel We’s Lives In Da Ghetto; contrary to Monk’s more academic works, this book is full of perpetuated black stereotypes but has proven a commercial smash. This leads Monk to fake his attempt at these stereotypes, titled My Pafology, under the pseudonym Stagg R Leigh.
It’s a hugely entertaining film carried by Wright’s performance as the withdrawn and frustrated Monk, revelling in hamming up his persona of Stagg. He deserves the awards attention he is receiving and is likely to make the Oscar nominees. The wider cast is full of talented names, with Issa Rae a fine foil as Gorden and Sterling K Brown as Cliff, larger than life and a far cry from his brother.
As a debut feature, it is a strong showcase for Jefferson, who has shown he has smoothly transitioned from small to big screen. To its credit, it has more depth than the promotional materials have indicated and may take some by surprise. At just under 2 hours, it never overstays its welcome. It’s a sharp film full of wit and dry humour, dealing with its sensitive subject topics playfully but impactful. It will be intriguing to follow what Jefferson goes on to make next, with this being a more than promising debut.