The most hilarious moment of American Fiction occurs when Jeffrey Wright’s character attempts to see how far he can take this joke in his satirical book. He says he wants to change the title when negotiating over the phone. When the publishers ask what new title he’d prefer, he tells them bluntly, “Fuck.” In his mind, this is too far and will likely kill his project. It doesn’t. So long as his book feeds into the stereotype white liberals gobble up with black authors writing “black” stories, he can’t escape from this monster he’s created.
But American Fiction is more compelling beyond this scheme. Wright’s Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is established as a character who is far more than just a stuffy, out-of-touch author struggling to write another hit book. He finds himself drawn back to the family after the suicide of his father, the failing health of his mother (Leslie Uggams), and the return of his out-of-the-closet brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown). He visits their seaside home, where he reconnects with his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and finds himself fancying their neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander). While Monk can be quietly critical, he’s also a guy who can bond decently with enough wine and small joys like his mother’s maid getting married.
Monk struggles to handle becoming a more prolific author, scoffing at the expectations of black authors. He witnesses the carefully woven storytelling of fellow author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) as a sign of what mass readers want. In his bitterness, Monk writes a satirical novel based on these concepts, playfully called My Pafology. With its intentional misspellings and street-wise writing that would please fans of The Wire, the book he submits under a false name is exactly what audiences want. Considering the payout for such a book, Monk reluctantly keeps the con going, if only to appease his money-hungry agent (John Ortiz).
Monk’s progression as an author, son, brother, and lover makes for a multifaceted character that goes beyond being a mere vessel for the perceptions of black culture. He’s never entirely in the right as his relationships crumble, and his worldview is further challenged, especially early on when he comically tries to force his books out of the Black Voices section of a bookstore, refusing to be reduced to a simplistic label. Cliff wonderfully challenges his ideas of honesty, as the gay brother confesses he wishes he had a chance to be truthful with his father about his sexuality. Sintara perfectly debates Monk’s limited look at how her writing feeds into the simplistic worldview of white liberals. It’s not as simple as Monk thought, and the topic never rests on such easily digestible platitudes. That being said, there are some funny jabs along the way, as when an author award committee highlights how they’re listening to black voices despite the only black voices in the room being drowned out by the white judges.
American Fiction is a smart dissection of racial perceptions as it never settles on an easy resolution for such a complicated issue. It’s also an intelligent usage of the premise by turning the ending around the audience and challenging how they’d like to see it end. Do you prefer the ending where Monk makes a grand romantic gesture towards Coraline or the one where police ruthlessly gun him down? Do you prefer the film’s title, or would you prefer the mocking alternative of Plantation Annihilation? The truth within the film is that fiction is always more fantastical and comfortably simplistic, even when it’s trying to represent the world we live in. The great humor within this film is not that Monk managed to deceive others with his writing; it’s that he thinks he’s the better man for not playing into stereotypes despite doing exactly that. Grace and humor (both biting and gentle) come with recognizing that humility, making this such an intoxicating film to watch unfold.