Satire is a rare commodity and always has been, but Cord Jefferson’s debut film American Fiction has restored my faith in its survival. What’s more, it offers the gifted Jeffrey Wright an exceptional leading role that he plays to perfection. (You can also see him in a cameo appearance as flamboyant New York City politician Adam Clayton Powell in Rustin, now playing on Netflix.)
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is not an easily embraceable character: a misanthropic college professor whose lukewarm track record as a novelist has forced him to teach in order to make a living. His students’ ignorance and indifference drive him mad. When he discovers that a young black female has written a novel called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto in outlandish street vernacular and readers have made it a best-seller he channels his frustration into his laptop and produces a similar manuscript. It’s filled with offensive language and stereotypes…but guess what? It, too, is a hit.
Writer-director Jefferson has chosen well in adapting Percival Everett’s 2011 novel Erasure and has lucked out in landing Wright for the leading role. He can express a range of nuanced emotions and is called upon to do so as we travel to his family’s beach house at the Massachusetts shore and get to know his mother, brother, longtime housekeeper, and an attractive neighbor across the street. Each of these well-cast characters is fully fleshed out; we can feel that they had lives before the events of this story and will continue to do so. The leading character’s interactions with his family help explain why he is the way he is. No clichés here but many laughs, mostly at the expense of dull-witted white people like Ellison’s publishers and fellow judges in a literary competition. Here the movie dares to veer toward caricature but it’s in the service of a larger truth. At the same time, it deals with such serious issues as health care, homophobia, ageism, and racial pigeonholing.
American Fiction is a hugely satisfying film. First-time director Jefferson is confident enough to let scenes play out instead of cutting at the first possible cue. Laura Karpman’s jazzy score supports the film in fine fashion, as befits a story with a leading character known to one and all as Monk. I’m sure I’m not the only moviegoer who’ll be keeping an eye on Cord Jefferson in the years ahead.