The Movie Waffler New Release Review - AMERICAN FICTION | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - AMERICAN FICTION

American Fiction review
Adopting a pseudonym, a disillusioned author writes a novel based on crude African-American stereotypes, only for it to become a bestseller.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Cord Jefferson

Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Keith David, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown

American Fiction poster

There's the old stereotype of the uneducated working class man who visits a modern art gallery where, bemused by paintings he can't understand, proclaims "My kid could paint that." The idea that high art is some sort of scam indulged by the intelligentsia is sadly all too prevalent. Whenever a film critic posts a list of their favourite movies you'll inevitably see responses like "You don't really like all those movies about suicidal goat-herders in Mongolia, do you?" Lots of people think they could knock out a great piece of art if they were simply bothered, usually the sort of men who claim they could outperform a professional female athlete in their chosen sport. Movies like Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood and the Tony Hancock vehicle The Rebel, in which untalented nobodies accidentally become the toast of the art world, have satirised this idea.

But for every working class person who laughs at "high" art, there's a middle class snob who scornfully denounces the sort of "low" art enjoyed by the general public. They both come from a place of equal ignorance.

American Fiction review

Writer/director Cord Jefferson's satirically sharp debut American Fiction, a semi-adaptation of Percival Everett's novel 'Erasure', takes the premise of films like A Bucket of Blood and The Rebel and gives it a class switcheroo. Jeffrey Wright gets the role of a lifetime as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a literary professor who has found modest success with his own writing. In what plays like a companion piece to Kristoffer Borgli's Dream Scenario, the opening scenes display Monk's disdain for the modern American academic space, populated by fragile, entitled rich kids who become "triggered" at the drop of a hat. After an argument with a white student over his insistence on displaying the N-word on a whiteboard, Monk is called into what you assume is just the latest in a line of faculty meetings, where a group of white people tell him he can't use the offending word, without a hint of irony.

Monk is intensely frustrated at how he's labelled a black writer, rather than simply a writer. "The blackest thing about my books is the ink," he rages at a bookstore clerk after finding his work in the African-American Studies section. At a literary festival Monk is disgusted to see the main attraction is author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), whose debut novel 'We's Lives in da Ghetto', sounds to his ears like a collection of the sort of negative black stereotypes that pander to white audiences.

When his mother's (Leslie Uggams) dementia reaches the point where she needs to enter a nursing home, Monk is suddenly desperate for the funds to keep her in care. He decides to have a crack at writing the sort of "black trauma porn" novel that publishers currently demand, using the pseudonym "Stagg R. Leigh," presumably surmising that white audiences won't be familiar with the historical figure of the African-American pimp Lee Shelton, who was immortalised in a variety of blues ballads. To Monk's surprise, his book (which ends up being titled "Fuck") sparks a bidding war, with publishers offering him the sort of numbers he could only have previously dreamed of.

American Fiction review

At one point a character remarks how a writer should be non-judgemental of other people, and especially of the characters they write. The very judgemental Monk is taken aback by the idea, which is offered by the woman (Erika Alexander) he claims to love, but whose opinion he easily dismisses. It's an idea however that Jefferson clearly endorses, as his is a film that refuses to judge any of its characters. There are no villains here, save for the ones in Monk's mind. Instead Jeffferson presents us with a group of characters with conflicting ideas and allows the viewer to make up their own mind on who's right. When 'Fuck' is entered into a literary competition whose panel of judges includes both Monk and Sintara, Jefferson reminds us of the necessity of something that's going out of fashion in our increasingly narrow-minded and binary world – a spirited debate. Sintara sees the novel for exactly what it is, siding with Monk in campaigning against its inclusion. The white judges view it as an important work. A pair of white liberals seem to want to include it to make themselves look good, while a gruff Norman Mailer wannabe sees it as a vital work "from the gutter." A lot of cringey comments are made, but also some valid points. Confronting Sintara as to how her book is any different to 'Fuck', Monk's elitism is exposed.

Had Monk been around in the 1970s, he likely would have been one of those black intellectuals who rallied against blaxploitation movies. While such figures certainly had a point about how those movies portrayed black men as pimps rather than professors, they missed the key point, that they were the only movies that featured heroic black protagonists, and that working class black audiences lapped them up. For the average African-American in the '70s, a figure like Ron O'Neal's Superfly was surely more relatable than a teacher played by Sidney Poitier. Black filmmakers like Melvin van Peebles and writers like Iceberg Slim were able to reach the African-American public in a way the likes of James Baldwin couldn't.

American Fiction review

At the same time, Monk certainly has a point about what sort of black stories dominate the culture, though it has arguably less impact now than it would have had in 2001 when 'Erasure' was published. The sort of black stereotypes interrogated here have become much rarer as more black artists have emerged in recent years. It's unlikely that American Fiction itself could have been made a decade ago when its themes might have been more resonant, unless Spike and Denzel signed on. I certainly can't imagine its delightful subplots concerning Monk's gay cokehead brother (a charming Sterling K. Brown) and a romance between his family's maid (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and a local security guard (Raymond Anthony Thomas) would have remained intact, as they show black people having a good time in a manner that isn't related to their race.

The prevailing question that needs addressing however is not who gets to tell what stories, but who ultimately consumes those stories? Who is more likely to embrace American Fiction: a black audience or the white liberals it so savagely satirises? On the basis of his excellent debut, Jefferson deserves to reach the widest audience possible. You can tell he's a special filmmaker because he even finds a way to make the act of writing engrossing for the viewer.

American Fiction
 is in UK/ROI cinemas from February 2nd.

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