American Fiction  (15) Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Cord Jefferson, US, 2023, 117 mins

Cast:  Jeffrey Wright, Erika Alexander, Agnes Ellison, Sterling K. Brown

Review by Carol Allen

In this sharp cultural comedy, actor Jeffrey Wright finally gets the meaty lead role he deserves.  And he is terrific in it. 

He plays Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an intellectual literary professor and author of several highbrow novels with low sales.   The absolute opposite of the ghetto born, drug taking, gun toting, poverty stricken black characters, who feature in the majority of novels and films about “black” culture.  His irritation with such works comes to a head at a literary festival where the tiny audience for his presentation on his work contrasts humiliatingly with the enthusiastic, largely white audience for new bestselling author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) and her novel “We’s Lives in da Ghetto”.  Golden, like Monk, is a well-educated, middle class black woman who has probably never even seen the inside of a ghetto.  But she knows how to make the right noises about how “our story” must be told.

So Monk decides to make his point by writing a satirical, over top version of the “gun and ghetto” novels the white liberal market so adores under the title “My Pafology”, but the idea misfires when the white liberal publishing market seize on the work with enthusiasm and he has to take on the identity of the supposed author, convicted felon Stagg R Leigh. 

The money though is tempting, as Monk is having to deal with the very real problems of his middle class life – his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams), who is developing dementia and needs expensive professional care:  his bossy sister Lisa (Tracee Ross Ellis) and his younger brother Cliff (Sterling K Brown), who’s just come out as gay and is making a bit of a drama out of it.   On the plus side Monk, who has problems with intimacy, is developing a very promising romance with Coraline (Erika Alexander), the young woman who lives opposite the family’s seaside home.  But will he manage to avoid messing that up?

Writer/director Jefferson in his debut feature film presents us with both a realistic  picture of a contemporary black middle class family, while satirically contrasting that with the culturally limiting white woke liberals and their condescending view of black culture whose “truth” as they see it, is the only truth that must be told.  And the way he does it is both convincing and very funny.