Karen would like to speak to the manager. She’s among the many people who are the butt of the jokes in American Fiction. But if she can’t laugh at herself, she might want to ask why.
The laughs come consistently in American Fiction as writer/director Cord Jefferson leaves nobody outside the crosshairs in this satire of identity politics. However, the laughs take a moment to start rolling. As evidenced by the jam-packed screening recently at the Windsor International Film Festival, audiences need to read the room with this one. There’s a chuckle here and a giggle there as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) lands on extended leave from his teaching gig after offering comments in class that make Lydia Tár seem like the hallmark of political correctness. “May I laugh?” the partly muffled giggles in the theatre ask. “Is this ok?” they wonder as Monk rants and raves.
Once everyone realizes that American Fiction spares nobody any mercy, laughter consumes the theatre with a collective sigh of relief. American Fiction, this year’s People’s Choice Award winner at the Toronto International Film Festival, tackles the essentialism of identity politics with a sense of humour that invites everybody in. Yes, Karen, it’s alright to laugh during American Fiction. The manager approves.
A Bigger “Blacker” Book
That could, however, be the drawback for some people. American Fiction doesn’t go for the jugular. It’s a broad stroke at a complicated state of affairs, but it’s a leap ahead of, say, Green Book. It’s smart and funny, particularly for its insider’s take on publishing and media. There’s perhaps no greater debate happening in media these days than that concerning representation and voice. In the process of ensuring a diverse field, though, the question of who gets to speak on behalf of a community often simplifies complex identities. Monk, a struggling author, encounters this dilemma when he can’t find a publisher for his book. His agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), says that people want a “Blacker” book. Monk, understandably peeved, retorts that he’s Black, therefore the book is Black. Arthur replies with a nope.
The issue, see, is that the white gatekeepers idealize a certain image of Blackness for audiences. Monk encounters this reality at a literary conference. He’s gobsmacked by the thundering applause that greets a reading of the book We’s Lives in da Ghetto. The very Caucasian audience leaps to its feet after author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) finishes a passage about baby daddies and such. She delivers it with some sort of Ivy League Ebonics gumbo. It makes Monk cringe, but the Karens eat it up.
The event inspires Monk to feed an industry with an appetite for pandering. He clacks out a story of drugs, streets, police brutality, and Black death. Under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh and the alter-ego of a criminal finding reform, his book, My Pafology, is born. It lets reads enter the minds of a Black gangsta. They drink it up like the Chenin Blanc that nearly blows Monk’s cover.
Layers of Discomfort
Monk finds himself in over his head when his book, retitled F**k, becomes a mega-hit. It proves everything he suspects, but it also irks him when people he admires praise the book. They say it speaks to them, not knowing that the author wrote it as a ruse. Monk’s life spirals out of control while, or perhaps because, he finds inexplicable success under a pseudonym.
Among the relationships that feel the strain is his newfound romance with neighbour Coraline (Erika Alexander). A force of joy and life, Coraline offers a much-needed anchor for Monk. But his literary tastes get the better of him when he makes clear what he thinks liking F**k means about her. Ditto his tight ass shaking up his relationship with his newly out brother, Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), whose own story could teach My Pafology a thing or two.
Jefferson goes for easy laughs with by making Clifford’s sexuality a layer of discomfort for American Fiction to peel back. Clifford embraces his newfound lifestyle by taking lovers, appearing with a new boytoy (or two) each time he appears. (As a side note about how American Fiction plays with the crowd, one woman I sat next to at WIFF was audibly uncomfortable with Clifford’s sexuality. “Oh, god!” said Karen gasped every time Brown strutted out with a new hunk in a speedo.) But as Brown’s scene-stealing performance defies the stereotype of the gay man in a movie, particularly a hyper-masculine gay man, his presence in American Fiction underscores the point that Monk misses with his own book. While there is no singular way of being Black, or being gay—or of being white, straight, Brown, etc., etc.—nobody has a right to say that one person’s way of existing in the world is more or less valid than another’s.
Moreover, the film couldn’t find a better leading to be our eyes into this satire of Americana. Jeffrey Wright gives a dryly hilarious performance by playing it straight in a seemingly absurd world. While Wright has flexed his comedic muscles in small roles, like in The French Dispatch or Asteroid City, he’s never received a part that’s allowed him to be so mercilessly funny. Monk resonates with the complexity of a man developed by a character actor’s sensibility, yet transformed with a leading man’s screen presence.
Casting Wright is one ingredient that makes American Fiction an impressive feature debut for Jefferson. The newcomer has a natural hand with actors as the strong ensemble includes memorable highlights from Tracee Ellis Ross in a brief performance as Monk’s sister, while Miriam Shor plays the Karen to end all Karens as Paula the publisher, whose wry delivery of a Hampton’s joke is among the year’s best line reads.
Jefferson, adapting Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, skewers contemporary identity politics, and people’s discomfort with them, with perceptive humour. Jefferson’s film doesn’t take aim at anyone in particular, not does it let anyone off the hook. American Fiction instead harnesses one’s discomfort with questions of race, sexuality, and identity to drolly remind audiences that there’s no one-size-fits-all label for any type. Perhaps the film’s grandest statement is its invitation for everyone to lighten up and embrace our differences.
American Fiction screened at the Windsor International Film Festival and opens in theatres on December 15.