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‘AMERICAN FICTION’ HITS THE BULL’S-EYE

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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