Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

The Start

At the core of Cord Jefferson’s biting yet hilarious film American Fiction, among the most important and complex questions is the struggle between critical acclaim and creative excellence. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a respected writer and English professor. Well, the general public did not accept his literary works. Jeffrey Wright plays the title role. Monk is deeply resentful of the publishing industry because it is obsessed with trendy terms like “representation” and “diversity.” His actions show how he may drink too much alcohol. When he was alone in his car, he seemed very depressed. The first scene depicts a white student losing it over the use of the n-word, which upsets her to such an extent that it stops the entire class. Monk’s increasingly irritated reply, “When did they all become so goddamn delicate?” captures his mounting annoyance.

The film starts as a polemical piece. “Okay, let’s begin,” said Monk at the beginning. He set a didactic tone and signaled that the next lesson would begin soon. Wright’s expressions in resting pose a natural tendency toward solemnity. His distinctive head tilt and the way he wears glasses accentuate his strong brow line. It gave him an impression of authority. At first glance, Monk seems to be another one of such characters—a distinguished individual who has seen it all. But despite his underlying melancholy and sporadic outbursts, he starts to stand out when hints of a lighter side show through. He attends a book festival and hears a talk by Sintara Golden, whose first book, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, is enthusiastically praised by the moderator. Cheers break out from the audience when Sintara, an Oberlin-educated former publishing assistant, asks, “Where is our representation?” However, Monk reacts when she switches to African American Vernacular English (AAVE) while reading a passage from her book. His eyebrows shoot up to an unlikely height, almost like parentheses, as though he’s trying to pull away from the whole thing.

Jefferson’s American Fiction is a skillfully written, thought-provoking dramedy that examines what happens when an author’s literary joke backfires. Wright plays a stoic literature professor named Monk in the film, who, while writing under a pen name, finds unexpected success with a genre novel he detests. Based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, the film draws on a long tradition of literary works. It addresses the complex issues surrounding black representation in the entertainment business. Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, which concentrate particularly on Black representation in television and film, are acknowledged as sources of inspiration for the film.

Black Representation in Comedy

The protagonist of Townsend’s humorous investigation, a struggling actor, passionately refuses to degrade himself by giving in to such clichés. The film is a monument to his unshakable dedication to artistic integrity and his unflinching refusal of parts that would have limited him to portraying urban criminals, slaves, or characters based on well-known personalities such as Eddie Murphy. On the other hand, Lee’s film takes a more critical stance. Played by Damon Wayans, the television writer tries to make a case for the dangers of black stereotypes to his white producers. He plans to propose a contentious program that will have performers of color doing blackface minstrel acts.

In American Fiction, Monk experiences a similar crisis of confidence in finding a publisher for his latest manuscript. It is a reworking of Aeschylus’s The Persians. Unfortunately, publishers don’t think the work is “Black” enough. Monk, filled with annoyance and inspired by watching Get Rich or Die Tryin’ on a hotel TV, hatches a cunning scheme. He wrote a novel about hardships in a city filled with irritation and excessive clichés. Monk sent his latest work, My Pafology, to a publisher under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh and expected immediate rejection. To him, they would harshly criticize him for doing so because of their limited understanding of Black literature. But the result turns out to be quite different from what he had anticipated.

Source material for American Fiction can be found in Sapphire’s contentious book Push. However, the film emphasizes how persistent racial commercialization is in the publishing business. The film also explores the nuances of the Hollywood adaptation process. Its debut by Jefferson, a journalist turned television writer, clarifies the convoluted framework. In the sumptuous mansion that was his childhood home, complete with tassels hanging from the stairs and lacrosse sticks slackly leaning against the walls, Monk begins work on My Pafology. His go-to weapon is such a poisonous mixture of every imaginable destitute Black stereotype. He gives his agency instructions to promote the work as the first book by a fictional convict named Leigh while grinning sarcastically. In Monk’s view of the error, it was like throwing a drink in the face of the publishing industry.

The Creative Team

Even though American Fiction‘s satirical plot is similar to Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, the film’s uniqueness comes from its witty banter, inventive touches, and nuanced characters. Renowned television programs that Jefferson has penned include Watchmen, The Good Place, Succession, and Station Eleven. The magnificent piece marks his directorial debut. The cinematographer, Cristina Dunlap, is not put off by the film’s preference for talking over visuals. Wright’s empathetic performance, possibly his greatest since playing Jean-Michel Basquiat in the eponymous 1996 film, elevates the story to a pinnacle. Monk uses his intelligence as a shield when defending himself, but as Coraline wisely points out, trying to be opaque on purpose is not a commendable trait.

The outsider satire of American Fiction became one of the topics of discussion. People argue that the broad coverage makes people laugh instead of encouraging reflection. Remarkably, Jefferson goes beyond the satirical basis of the film to offer a detailed character analysis of a man emotionally cut off from others by his professional resentment. Monk is not only an object of the industry’s well-intentioned but simplistic prejudice; he is also more than the annoyance of those who must endure the industry’s insistence on treating racial topics as a kind of required educational penance.

Adapting the Source Material

The incisive script written by Jefferson for American Fiction expands and adapts Everett’s Erasure. Everett has experience investigating unusual storylines. Directing his debut feature film, Jefferson draws on his wealth of television writing skills to explore the meta-narrative components of the picture. In the following scene, a Hollywood producer thinks My Pafology has what it takes to win the top prize.

Beyond the broad strokes of humor, the film shines in the moments that examine Monk’s relationships with his family and coworkers. Amid a delayed coming out, Clifford is a guy dealing with his midlife crisis, and Sterling K. Brown plays him with great intensity. Clifford confronts Monk about his propensity to carry on his father’s deceit, rage, and emotional distance. In the literary awards judging panel, Monk’s involvement was another storyline. Appropriately, it provides an insight into how even academics find it difficult to address issues of race and representation. To his complete surprise, the panel—which includes the gifted Sintara—names his novel “real” and “raw,” bestowing upon it an abundance of accolades. During their talk, Monk expresses his worry that publications similar to theirs “flatten our lives.”

The Central Challenge

Like Monk and Everett did before him, Jefferson clearly understood the principal puzzle. Frankly, writing a story rejects an assumption. Overtly, writing a story rejects an assumption. Discussing a race requires handling the avoidance of the subject. With a combination of fun and insight, Jefferson directs the hilarious moments surrounding Leigh’s quick ascent to fame.

In Monk’s life, Jefferson paid specific attention to incidents. To convey the intended message in the film goes beyond the race controversy. The exchanges highlight the nuanced nature of his interpersonal connections. Will Monk overcome his misgivings and convince his mother that he needs full-time medical care? Can he let his guard down and develop closer relationships with his sister and brother? Maybe there’s even a chance for a romantic relationship with the charming public defender. Whether the beach house is for sale or not further strengthens the narrative.

American Fiction is a superbly performed, realistic drama with satirical aspects providing a framework. The story revolves around a wealthy and combative Black man, his family, and Laura Karpman’s poignant piano-forward score. The radical facet of the picture resides in its singularity; they are still mainly absent from the world of film. A montage of classic Black films, including New Jack City, Precious, and Antebellum, which were all shown as part of a cable channel’s Black Stories Month promotion, serves as Jefferson’s way of highlighting the point. A litany of stale clichés, such as teenage pregnancy, gun violence, and enslavement, are exposed in the sequence. When we combine them—Monk’s sly practical joke with the poignant truths of his life—there’s bound to be some tonal tension. The script’s clashing components are similarly an extravagantly showy cardigan crocheted by hand and embellished with gold buttons. After reflection, we will met with unanswered questions. Is there any aspect of Monk that is content with his newfound wealth? The film doesn’t give a definite response.

The Commodification

Additionally, there is another moment in revealing the systematic weakness in controlling the Black arts. Though primarily composed of white people, the literary prize committee espouses a false progressive ideology by supporting the idea of “listening to Black voices right now.” However, the two Black panelists, Monk and Sintara, are not included in their concept of “Black voices.” The choice captures the film’s principal theme: how and for whom Black art ultimately became a commodity. Are the stories just stories, or have they been assigned to a separate category called “Black Stories”—a process streaming providers use—that caters only to white viewers? Although Monk strongly advocates for label elimination, he also recognizes their use in increasing awareness and promoting advances in diversity in the entertainment business. Neither Monk nor the film’s director, Jefferson, try to provide a final answer to complex concerns.

Strengthened by the complexity of the themes, Wright’s subtle yet varied depictions add weight to the film’s sarcastic tone. Expertly capturing it, Wright and the other characters drive the central drama intimately. There are moments when American Fiction seems split between its humorous aspects and its emphasis on character development. One of the first scenes highlights the strength. The lighthearted and clever repartee between a reunited Monk and his sister Lisa is touching. Wright and Tracee Ellis Ross have incredible chemistry. So, it is easy to see clues about their former siblings. At this point, there’s a hard want for the film to go further into the Ellison family’s lives.

Nuance Over Stereotypes

The strength of American Fiction is its ability to give Monk what he wants secretly. It represents Black characters who reject cliché tales of inner-city hardship. They are upper-middle-class characters who remember a pleasant childhood spent at their beach house on Martha’s Vineyard. They also face their own set of difficulties. The film and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, a fellow autumnal release that admits its debt to the director, are similar. Ultimately, the film reaches a dead end. There is no easy solution, and it ends with a sad shrug of “what can you do.” But what stays with me the most is Wright’s brilliant portrayal. He portrays a depressed figure, a man with goals. However, he got into trouble by being selfish.

Throughout the entire film, Jefferson exhibits incredible strategic dexterity. His choice to call Van Go Jenkins and Willy the Wonkeer (the two imaginary leads of My Pafology) is a deft illustration. They appear in a scene together, drinking liquor from paper bag bottles. In the end, they frowned at their cliche conversation. The crowd bursts into laughter, eager for them to come back. Jefferson, nevertheless, purposefully decides to keep their appearance to just one scene. By doing it, we are symbolically rejecting the use of stereotypes in media. At the film’s end, the camera moves across pictures hanging on a wall in the Ellison family house.

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