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Review: “American Fiction” presents a refreshing blend of satire and drama

Courtesy Orion Pictures

By Jay Collura     1/23/24 10:00pm

Review: ★★★½

If you’ve been watching movies these few years, you’ve probably seen Jeffrey Wright. He was Commissioner Gordon in “The Batman,” reprised his role alongside Daniel Craig in “No Time To Die” and played smaller characters in two Wes Anderson movies. Across all these performances, he has been consistently excellent but always limited. Fortunately, “American Fiction” finally allows Wright to take center stage — an opportunity that he capitalizes on, providing a thoughtful and hilarious lead in first-time director Cord Jefferson’s dramedy.

The film, adapted from Percival Everett’s “Erasure,” follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Wright), an African-American author struggling to find a publisher for his latest novel because his latest manuscript is, in the words of his agent, “not Black enough.” After encountering a successful novel entitled “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto,” Monk frustratedly writes a satirical response criticizing the Black stereotypes that he believes the novel is pandering to. However, the publishing world takes Monk’s story at face value, assuming that the novel is based on the real experience of a criminal, and the book becomes Monk’s most successful work. The satire that comes from the premise is refreshingly sharp and frequently hilarious. Watching the self-serious, measured Monk be confronted with success and deal with good-intentioned but naive publishers is hilarious. Decisions made in the costuming and set design also add to the hilarity, and the jokes never wear too thin as a result.

However, the film is bifurcated. The satire prompts questions about the use of stereotypes and the way white audiences perceive African-American art, and the other half of the film, a family drama, partially answers these questions. By creating a portrait of a complex Black family dealing with their strained relationships with each other, the film provides an alternative example to the stereotype-based novels the film is satirizing. Monk’s frustration with his writing eventually leads him back home, where he reconnects with his sister and mom after isolating himself for some years. The precise balance between comedy and drama creates a grounded, thought-provoking narrative that is never too heavy.

Structurally, this two-lane approach is strong, but the execution leaves something to be desired. As the film continues, the drama becomes increasingly predictable and feels almost like a collage of tropes used in similar stories. For a film that is otherwise innovative, it is underwhelming for the drama to lack the same bite that the comedy has.

This shortcoming is no fault of the ensemble, however. Tracee Ellis Ross, Leslie Uggams and Sterling K. Brown all deliver appropriately complex performances that elevate the material significantly. Wright is also excellent at balancing his character’s irritability, sensitivity and wit. This balance creates a three-dimensional character, which is exactly what the film wants to accomplish. Allowing Wright to take center stage expands the conversation the film inspires to the real world, as Jefferson aims to elevate Black voices at all levels.

Regardless of some issues with the execution, “American Fiction” is still a very sharp film that is worth watching. The film, smartly, does not impose a singular answer to the variety of questions it poses, but instead inspires important conversations in a hilarious, accessible way.

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