One of the oldest adages in literature is “Write what you know” and in his new film AMERICAN FICTION, first-time director Cord Jefferson turns that famous phrase on its head. The story of his film concerns an erudite college professor named Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) who’s so contemptuous of black authors exploiting the urban cliches of drug dealers, pimps, and teen mothers in their prose that he decides to hack out a satirical screed and force it upon the American public to show how silly such books are. It’s entitled My Pafology, purposely misspelled, and Monk writes the fake bio as a hard knock account of a drug dealer invention he names Stagg R. Leigh. The malarkey he pens is of a world a million miles from his own well-heeled experience, but no matter, the book becomes a humongous bestseller.
From there, Monk must wrestle with the fact that his fake novel has eclipsed all of the serious books he’s written before that. It’s so off-putting to him that the comedy of the film not only comes from the ruse but from Monk’s exasperation at its success. AMERICAN FICTION is a hoot, doing an expert job of spoofing the modern world of literary bestsellers and black stereotyping, as well as the ivory towers of higher education, all kinds of bigotry, and the fear writers have in their attempts to publish, not perish. After all, even though Monk hates his fraudulent success, he fears obsolescence more.
The role seems tailor-made for Wright, one of America’s greatest serious actors, but he is letter-perfect in this slow-burn role, underplaying the rage marvelously. His subtle anguish becomes more and more amusing as the story continues, especially when My Pafology becomes a finalist for a prestigious book award that he’s been asked to judge. Adding more insult to his injury is the fact that Sinatra Golden (Issa Rae), the author whose book We’s Lives in the Ghetto inspired Monk’s contempt in the first place, is a fellow judge, one he must kibitz with as they determine the winner.
The laughs easily could have been more than enough to sustain Jefferson’s wily and rollicking adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, but where AMERICAN FICTION transcends is in how Jefferson’s film handles the more serious matters concerning Monk and his family. The professor, you see, has various financial concerns, not the least of them taking care of his mother whose mind is lapsing into Alzheimer’s. Leslie Uggams is terrific in the role of this once-proud woman who now is losing her bearings. Additionally, Monk has strained relationships with his siblings, namely his world-weary sister (Tracy Ellis Ross) and cynical gay brother ( Sterling K. Brown, wonderful as always). As Monk tries to sell off the family’s summer cottage to make ends meet, he also must wrestle with a down-market not fully recovered after COVID.
In some ways, the pseudo-biography Monk has written turns out to be a salvation, at least money-wise. An additional turn for the better comes with a new romance Monk starts up with his cottage’s neighbor Coraline. She is played by Erika Alexander and the chemistry she shares on screen with Wright is delightfully droll and sweetly caring. They make for an excellent coupling, so much so that I might’ve watched a film just about their relationship. That’s how well it’s played, and how cleverly Jefferson writes the duo.
Jefferson includes lots of sly beats in the story, as well as oodles of witty lines for everyone to relish. Especially clever is the revelatory twist in which Monk starts to realize that identity politics not only steers the literary world he’s immersed in but his very self-image as well. He’s obsessed with his ‘blackness’ too, albeit in a different sort of way than the cliches at play in his book. It all makes for a fascinating and spirited dissertation on the very idea of “writing what you know.”
AMERICAN FICTION is also the kind of film the cineplex needs more of – adult, heady fare that manages to be utterly understandable and relatable, no matter how one identifies. It’s a real gem, one not to be missed.