On January 23rd, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that Cord Jefferson’s debut film, American Fiction, has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Jefferson’s film certainly merits the acclaim—American Fiction is a cinematic treasure, scarily original in its depth and chutzpah. But if the race-conscious Academy decides to reward the film’s black cast and writer-director in the name of diversity, it will be a satisfying irony—one of the film’s many pleasures is the intelligence and wit with which it injects its impudence into our culture’s prevailing racial sensibilities.
But to reduce Jefferson’s film to its satirical swipes at American racial politics does it a disservice. What moved me most was its tragicomic theme of individual yearning—that Americans seek to be more than we are, whether the goal is material or artistic or both. American yearning is primal—a desire, or a fantasy, to be known for something that we feel is our due. The object of our yearning is seldom what we achieve, and even if it is, its pinnacle or pit turns out to be nothing like what we thought it would be. Clock the usual wants—money, fame, a brand, a partner, a “normal” family, and the hope that what we do will matter. All of these are achievements. But in our age, to matter is a production of public and private deception, and the stupider the con, the more believable it is.
American Fiction is based on a 2001 novel by Percival Everett titled Erasure, a portentous story of accidental success, provocatively brought up-to-date for the DEI era. Everett sails in the open seas of acidic satire and derision of progressive pieties, a shape-shifting fantasist impossible to pigeonhole. Literature teacher Thelonius “Monk” Ellison (a bemused Jeffrey Wright) is in a funk—published but unread in an age of ethnic branding, he finds himself unheralded and irrelevant. It’s been years since he’s published anything new and he’s now estranged from his wealthy black Boston family. Monk is yearning to mean something—to others and to himself—but he can’t figure out how. His teaching duties, so far, have yielded few clues; indeed, he finds himself exasperated by a white college student’s opposition to discussing Flannery O’Connor’s story, “The Artificial Nigger.”
Jefferson and Everett bring their devil-may-care effrontery to bear on the culture of self-censorship in which Monk’s life and career are mired, and they use his story to offer a fresh and original commentary on racial exploitation. Monk’s mother (Leslie Uggams) is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and to raise the money to admit her into the best nursing facility, Monk pens a gangster novel titled My Pafology under the pseudonym “Stagg R. Leigh” (after the black 19th-century outlaw who killed Billy Lyons), and adopts the persona of a wanted fugitive.
Monk’s story is intended to parody the themes that black writers are expected to explore, but to its author’s astonishment, it is taken at face value. The book is a sensational hit, and big money—including millions in film rights—comes his way. But for Monk, success is soul-destroying. To be Leigh, he cannot be himself, an enduring theme in African-American fiction. With his masquerade, Monk’s coffers are temporarily full, but he’s smart enough to realize that a black writer’s parlay of white guilt amounts to an act of bestseller reparations. The version of blackness he provides is pandering, risible, and sardonic, but vigorously applauded by America’s cultural gatekeepers.
American Fiction is itself a “black” movie seeking a large audience. To that end, it offers a universal trope—family struggle and tentative resolution—and depicts the Ellisons as an American family, both authentic and categorical. Monk’s kin as often as not are types familiar to this kind of family drama: a disreputable father has committed suicide; his wife in her dotage forgives him; Monk’s doctor sister (an empathetic Tracee Ellis Ross) is even more forgiving but stricken by a heart attack early on; Monk’s brother (a bare-chested Sterling K. Brown) has just come out as gay; and then there is Monk, a semi-aware, wayward outlier, fated to wonder, “Am I any good?”
Monk’s problem is that he can’t love others, won’t let himself be loved, and worst of all, doesn’t know how to love himself. Call that black if you like, but it’s also a fate that many American men face, of which Jeffrey Wright’s head-scratching, middle-aged confusion is emblematic. A turnabout in racial portrayal gives this black family a beautiful Victorian home in Boston and a beach bungalow with a pool, where much of the action takes place, including Monk’s uneasy affair with a public defender named Coraline (Erika Alexander). The family employs a beloved black housekeeper (Myra Lucretia Taylor). There is not a thug among them.
And through it all runs a parody of earnestly progressive whites as book-business grubs. A black “victim” author fictionalizes a black “victim” narrator in a novel, and from there, leads us through the absurdities of the victimhood mentality. A light-skinned Puerto Rican (John Ortiz) persuades his black author to write and speak in ghetto slang, and when Monk tries to wreck the publishing deal by demanding that the novel be retitled Fuck, his publishers and their giddy publicist immediately agree, gushing that the book is a “masterpiece.” Monk is also invited to serve on a panel of judges that has selected his joke novel for a prestigious Book of the Year award, and while the loopy whites enthuse about its importance, he and another black panellist (Issa Rae) both insist that it’s trash.
It turns out that trash is neither admired nor hated—instead, it is summer-in-the-Hamptons readerly. Jefferson’s film sends up the boorish and condescending titans of culture, who believe that promoting even the worst literature by African-American authors can somehow help to redress historic wrongs. That notion is, of course, as fatuous as it is lit-cult dogma, and yet like a buoy in a storm, American Fiction’s wit and insight survive the tossings of a culture adrift among black hucksters and the white swine who feed at the trough of fake absolution. The intersectional pathos and bathos of the film is cheekily paced. You can bask in either emotion, or both at once, and everyone can find something to be offended by if they wish. But it is Monk’s slow-maturing self-regard that emerges as the film’s strongest theme, and I loved how his unplumbed emotions, shocked by changes to his family, draws attention away from the film’s racial consciousness.
A student of Hollywood’s depiction of writers, I find that such films about authors tend to skew to the life (and particularly the sex life) of their subjects at the expense of their work. Here I’m thinking of the ubiquitous writer’s fall, usually precipitated by a bad relationship or his trade’s indifference to his genius: Sunset Boulevard, Beloved Infidel, The Shining, Barton Fink, Capote, Wonder Boys. Films like these always drift into melodrama because the fall (alcoholism, writer’s block, revenge, madness) is much easier to dramatize than the inner joys and sorrows—the actual practice—of writing literature.
Try shooting the mindful growth of an author’s idea, the process of drafting and revision, the combat of editing, and so on. Dramatic scenes decorated with delicate piano music access little of the fragile interior or the discipline. (One exception is Starting Out One Evening with Frank Langella—a tender profile of an aging and ruminative novelist who opens up to a grad student examining his work.) Instead, manuscript pages rapidly accumulate, and then it’s printed, packaged, and on the shelves. Here, it requires some pondering for Monk to flint the idea for a thug novel. But once he does, he writes it. (I relished the fantasy of Monk typing while a gun-wielding son and his junkie pop act out a scene in front of him. The key line from the son after shooting dad, “Because you ain’t shit, I ain’t shit.”)
We’re reminded that trash can be turned out, L. Ron Hubbard-style, in weeks, and this depiction of the tragically talented dethrones talent. A gift for writing is beautiful, free, and natural, but if it matures—and finds fame—it must destroy itself. Monk personifies both the artist and trick pony. The literary writer with poor sales is miserable; he’s gone dry, nobody reads him, and he’s flummoxed by family turmoil. But the bestselling author is even more miserable because he’s a sellout who also thinks he’s another James Baldwin (or that he was meant to be). Intrinsic worth preoccupies authors because 95 percent of those who publish—case in point, Percival Everett, until Erasure’s film rights made him some well-earned scratch—make no gainful living from their labor. Writing’s intrinsic value has already supplied the unsuccessful with aesthetic achievements, despite his scant sales.
Ask authors for the book they’re reading and invariably it’s not a bestseller. (It’s probably written by a similarly seldom-read friend.) Ask any American who reads, say, two or three books a year (according to the Washington Post, that’s half of America), and invariably they’ve read bestsellers. Such is the topsy-turvy business of books that confines the romance of publishing to the pursuit of trends and copycats. American Fiction, tenderly, mischievously, ironically, makes that case as robustly as it mocks it—this is the journey, it seems, that any author who yearns to be read will take no matter the cost.