' ' Cinema Romantico: American Fiction

Monday, March 04, 2024

American Fiction

I cannot rightly claim to have read Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure” on which “American Fiction” is based, and so I can’t say what is similar and how they differ, and which is best. But I have seen Spike Lee’s 2000 satire “Bamboozled” in which a Black television writer creates a Black minstrel television show out of anger at the medium’s misrepresentation that becomes a hit instead. It’s not an unfair comparison because the narrative is eerily reminiscent of the one in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s Best Picture-nominated adaptation of “American Fiction,” and it’s a useful one, too. Because whereas Lee’s satire is truly that, exaggerated, hyperbolic, Jefferson has virtually strained all his satire out, melding it with a domestic drama rendered in such a polite aesthetic that the caricature mostly just plays as regular old comedy. There’s an early scene when author and professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is on his phone, detailing how racism doesn’t really exist while a cab drives right by him, picking up a white passenger instead. It’s a familiar joke that Chris Rock radically re-altered a quarter-century ago (!) in his Bigger & Blacker stand-up special, an inadvertently deft illustration of a movie that wants to comment on the times yet feels behind them, nonetheless. 

“American Fiction” begins with Monk being placed on temporary leave by his university after putting a problematic, in the parlance of our times, Flannery O’Connor quote on the markerboard. The presentation of this moment, however, in which an offended student walks out, is less provocation on the movie’s part than evocation of Monk as a man out of time. His terminal lack of place is underscored at a literary seminar where he leaves his poorly attended panel for a packed one with Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) who has become the toast of the publishing world with a book titled We’s Live in Da Ghetto, exploiting the sort of African American stereotypes that Monk detests, and are eaten up by white liberals with a spoon. Between the standing ovation that follows, and the blackened bar to which Monk repairs after, he is rendered as essentially invisible, a modern version of Ralph Ellison’s famous protagonist. 

In a fit of rage, Monk pens his own version of the same sort of book under a pseudonym, My Pafology by Stagg R. Leigh. Intending it merely as a middle finger to his own industry, it becomes a best-seller, necessitating a cover story, that his pseudonym belongs to a wanted fugitive, meaning he cannot appear in person to promote the book. Even as the lie grows, Monk is forced to deal with more grave matters back home in Boston. His sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) dies of a sudden heart attack, leaving the distant son to negotiate his mother’s (Leslie Uggams) descent into Alzheimer’s while also struggling to corral the impulses of his newly divorced and gay brother (Sterling K. Brown). 

The more traditionally dramatic scenes at home begin well, especially in the chemistry that Wright and Ellis Ross achieve in their scenes together, movingly embodying two people who clearly have not seen one another for a long time yet share a history they can’t deny. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s unfortunate her character has to die to trigger the narrative, and that the history their characters share never feels as charged as it does with anyone else. Monk’s mother, his brother, especially his late father, the roots never go all the way down, these characters and relationships just skimming the surface, too obviously revealing this whole parallel narrative as an allegory for the sorts of Black stories that Monk would rather see in popular culture. The dueling storyline of Monk’s book success, meanwhile, feels like satire directed by, well, the dude directing the other half of the movie, gently humorous rather than humorously bracing, and oddly unimaginative. The one scene from My Pafology played out as fantasy comes across staged and deadened rather than an illustration of the imagination, and the worldwide phenomenon of his book never really comes through.

It would have been interesting to see Wright’s restrained performance contrasted against a truly explosive satire, a man who can’t put back in the box what he has unleashed, but as it is, he melds with the tamer impulses of this “American Fiction” anyway. It’s as if Monk is never entirely committed to playing Stagg R. Leigh in the first place, and as if the walls confining a Black artist in this world can’t really be breached. That’s what makes the end, of all things, the best element in the movie, which brings it to a conclusion though something apart from a true resolution, Wright playing his final act as a kind of weary sigh, resigned to sacrificing himself, in a manner of speaking, for nothing much at all.

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