FILM REVIEW: American Fiction (2024)

Brilliantly dry tale of a black author who dumbs down his writing to make a statement, and unwittingly becomes a best seller.

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is an intelligent, articulate, African-American middle-class writer and professor in Los Angeles. His novels receive academic praise, but sell poorly, and publishers reject his latest manuscript for not being “black enough”.

When he discoverers that the black author that is being raved about by middle class white critics, and is selling like hot cakes, writes in a trashy, pulp fiction, stereotyping style, he decides to go down the same route. He doesn’t do it to chase the money, he does it to ironically ridicule the style, mocking the reader. However, the irony goes over the head of the publisher and they throw money at the book.

Meanwhile,  Monk has lost his job and his mother has to go into an expensive care home.  So he reluctantly swallows his pride, sells his soul, and runs with it. However, this means he now has to get into the character of fictional author, Stagg R Leigh.

Given he is already a respected author, he has to create an alter ego author, a mysterious fellon on the run that cannot reveal his real identity to the public.

It’s not entirely an original idea, but it’s delivery is brilliant.  We have side stories about dementia, honesty, dysfunctional families, homophobia and racism. Not to mention cultural appropriation.

It explores the question of whether or not focusing on ‘street’ characters, stereotyping low rent ‘gangsta’ characters with pidgin English give the impression all black people are like that. What’s more, do they drown out more accomplished literature by black authors? And, in this film at least, the ‘taste makers’ are middle-class white ‘intellectuals’ that have never set foot in the ghetto.

Having said that, there is also a defence of the genre, and the voice it can give to ‘the street’.

Jeffrey Wright plays the role of Monk flawlessly and there is a perfect balance of cutting satire and just laugh out loud dry humour. “I told you to wear street clothes,” Monk’s agent tells him. “This is street,” Monk replies. “Which street? Sesame Street?”

It’s not slapstick by any means. The laughs are sprinkled on the top of a thoughtful plot. And the result, as far as this reviewer is concerned,  is one of the best films I’ve seen in a very long time.