American Fiction (2023) – Film Review
By Helen Johnston
When black author Thelonious Ellison discovers his books in the African-American Studies section of a chain store bookshop, he realises just how far he’s been pigeon-holed by his colour.
A hapless white shop assistant says he assumes they’ve been put there simply because the author is black, much to Ellison’s fury as he scoops them up and moves them elsewhere.
This comes after he has been put on gardening leave from his day job as a university lecturer for upsetting his easily-offended students by getting them to debate derogatory racial terms.
You might think this subject matter sounds like a minefield of political correctness, but it’s dealt with in such a witty, satirical manner that it produces laughs right from the opening scene.
The screenplay, which has earned Cord Jefferson an Oscar nomination, is adapted from the novel Erasure by Percival Everett which came out in 2001 and shone a light on the stereotyping of black authors by the publishing world – a topic which remains as relevant today 23 years on.
“Universal human experiences”
Jeffrey Wright (also Oscar-nominated, for best actor) is superb as the disillusioned Ellison – nicknamed Monk after the jazz pianist who shares his first name. His drole delivery of sarcastic comments hits the mark every time.
But this is also a sensitive portrayal of a man not only suffering a crisis of identity, but also having to deal with a complicated set of family circumstances. It’s a depiction of a middle-aged man dealing with grief, an elderly parent with failing health, sibling rivalry, and a new romance; all universal human experiences, no matter the skin colour.
Far from the lazy black tropes found in many a book or film, Monk’s family is well-to-do and well-educated, his sister a doctor and his brother a plastic surgeon. They call their mum a rather formal ‘Mother’ and have a beach house as well as a large family home in Boston. They also employ a black maid.
When Monk sees another black author Sintara Golden being lauded at a book festival for her novel We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, which he believes panders to the literary world’s view of black lives, he decides to write a satirical novel. Using a pen name, he mocks the stereotypes of gun-toting gangs, drug dealers and feckless fathers, using ghetto patois and over-the-top dramatic scenes.
“Repair his relationship”
To his great frustration, the novel is picked up instantly and promoted as a best seller, with a movie deal quick to follow. Monk finds himself having to speak and even walk differently to fit in with what the publishers expect of his alter ego Stagg R. Leigh.
While dealing with all this, Monk is also trying to repair his relationship with his brother Cliff, played by the excellent Sterling K Brown, who is rightfully nominated for the Oscar for best supporting actor.
In total, American Fiction is up for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Score (mainly the kind of jazz the other Monk is famous for), and it will be a travesty if the cast and crew aren’t holding at least one Oscar aloft next month.
American Fiction made me laugh and cringe at the things white people say while falling over themselves trying not to cause offence to black people, but still getting it wrong. It was a clever touch to have both Monk’s mum and brother comment ‘thank goodness she’s not white’ when he introduced his new girlfriend to them.
Helen saw ‘American Fiction’ at The Showroom Cinema, Sheffield
The Showroom Cinema is fundraising to replace its oldest digital film projector with a new, more energy-efficient laser projector costing £20,000. This is a significant cost but imperative if the venue is to continue presenting screenings and generating revenue to reinvest in supporting filmmakers and audiences. A new projector will last more than ten years, helping to reduce carbon emissions by over 1.1 tonnes of CO2 per year. As part of registered charity Sheffield Media and Exhibition Centre, the Showroom relies on grants and donations for more than 50% of its revenue. To find out more and to donate, go to https://localgiving.org/appeal/showroomprojector/