Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a frustrated writer and academic whose incredulity at a publishing industry that ghettoises black authors into trauma narratives (or into urban crime stories featuring drug dealers and gangbangers), ultimately drives him to write a highly satirical novel meant to send up two dimensional depictions of the black experience.
The joke backfires, though; Monk’s agent (played by John Ortiz) loves it and publishers are soon lining up to offer him – or rather, the prison-escapee alter-ego he says wrote ‘Ma Pafology’ – buckets of cash. Hilarity ensues in this biting satire which has earned a clutch of award nominations - including best actor in a leading role for Wright and best picture at the upcoming Oscars.
Wright shines, of course, as the snobbish and misanthropic Monk – though we soon come to realise that, while he might be right to scoff at a system that relies so heavily on stereotype, his intellect has become a barrier stopping him from forming the kind of meaningful relationships he so clearly needs in his life.
After offending the sensibilities of one of his white students by writing the ‘N’ word on a board while giving a lecture, (“I got over it, I’m pretty sure you can too,” intones Monk), he’s given a leave of absence from work and returns to stay with family in Boston. It is in this domestic setting, coming to terms with his mother’s declining cognitive health and other tragedies along the way, that the heart of the film truly unfolds.
My favourite performance came from Sterling K Brown as Monk’s dilettante, drug-addled brother, a plastic surgeon who is only now, in middle age, coming to terms with the fact that he’s gay (Brown is nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar).
This is what director Cord Jefferson in his first feature film (he cut his teeth writing prestige TV such as Watchmen and The Good Place) does so well – by balancing the slapstick of Monk’s newfound success (in one scene, the usually austere Monk is forced to play act at being his own prison escapee alter ego to impress a movie exec), with a finely-drawn family drama, the film illuminates the flattening-effect that stereotypes have, and shows us that the real stories will always be more interesting.
As American Fiction draws to a close, we begin to understand that Jefferson isn't just critiquing the publishing industry but really turning the microscope onto any number of commercialised art forms. Audiences, the film seems to say, crave easy stereotypes and narrative arcs which conform to preconceived notions of storytelling – much to their detriment.
American Fiction is a funny, heartwarming tale that holds a mirror up to its viewers – a well deserved best picture contender.
117 mins, cert 15