‘American Fiction’ probes the price of Black success in a White-dominated media culture

Erika Alexander stars as Coraline and Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison in writer/director Cord Jefferson's AMERICAN FICTION

Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction.”Claire Folger/Orion ReleasingCNN — 

A low-key movie with a pointed message, “American Fiction” offers an amusing look at a serious subject – namely, the kind of Black images with which predominantly White decision-makers in media are comfortable, and the toll of pandering to that market. Providing a rare and welcome starring role for Jeffrey Wright, the film marks an accomplished feature debut for writer-director Cord Jefferson.

Adapted from Percival Everett’s book “Erasure,” the central plot has a familiar feel, with what amounts to a joke that inadvertently takes on its own life and eventually gets out of hand. In this case, it’s a novel written out of frustration by Monk (Wright), an author and literature professor who is essentially sleepwalking through life when an unexpected tragedy jogs him out of his complacency.

Monk is introduced while dealing with the easily triggered students at the college where he’s teaching, prompting a reluctant visit to his mother (Leslie Uggams), who is in the early throes of dementia, and siblings (Tracee Ellis Ross and Sterling K. Brown). Beyond exploring old family baggage and unaddressed issues, Monk also begins a relationship with one of his mom’s neighbors (Erika Alexander), all of which threatens to be complicated when he impulsively churns out a book filled with the Black stereotypes that he loathes, attributing it to an anonymous author who is supposedly a fugitive.

To his shock and dismay, Monk’s agent (John Ortiz) finds eager buyers for the joke book – not the more serious tome on which Monk has been working – telling him, “White people think they want the truth, but they don’t. They just want to feel absolved.”

Yet while Monk could potentially quash the deal, his mother’s worsening condition, and the expense associated with the kind of healthcare she needs, clouds the issue, although like any deception the web becomes more tangled the longer Monk tries to extend it.

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Wright captures the angst that Monk feels, especially listening to people praise the book, and interacting with another novelist (Issa Rae) whose work represents the kind of “Black trauma porn” that he initially sought to lampoon. In that sense, “American Fiction” engages in a debate over feeding market demand and maintaining one’s integrity, an age-old problem for Black artists conducted here in the literary realm.

Jefferson’s credits including writing for the TV series “Watchmen” and “The Good Place,” and he brings a deft touch to this story that allows the characters and situations to breathe, which includes finding good moments for the supporting roles.

Ultimately, “American Fiction” raises https://berharaplahlagi.com questions about the price of Black success in a White-dominated media and entertainment culture. What it doesn’t do, while maintaining its satirical edge and eye, is provide any easy answers.

“American Fiction” premieres December 15 in select US theaters and expands on December 22. It’s rated R.

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