Hitting it big for wrong reasons: In ‘American Fiction’ at Amherst Cinema, writer’s pastiche hailed as authentic

Erika Alexander, as Coraline, and Jeffrey Wright, as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, share a laugh in a scene from “American Fiction,” a deft comedy and drama now playing at the Amherst Cinema.

Erika Alexander, as Coraline, and Jeffrey Wright, as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, share a laugh in a scene from “American Fiction,” a deft comedy and drama now playing at the Amherst Cinema. Image from Amherst Cinema website

Jeffrey Wright, who stars in “American Fiction,” is seen in early January at the Golden Globes Awards in Beverly Hills, California, where he was nominated for best male actor in a movie or musical. 

Jeffrey Wright, who stars in “American Fiction,” is seen in early January at the Golden Globes Awards in Beverly Hills, California, where he was nominated for best male actor in a movie or musical.  Photo by Jordan Stauss/Invision/via AP

Jeffrey Wright plays writer Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in “American Fiction,” a witty dramedy that examines white perceptions of “authentic” Black experiences.

Jeffrey Wright plays writer Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in “American Fiction,” a witty dramedy that examines white perceptions of “authentic” Black experiences. Photo by MGM/Zuma Press/TSIV/via AP

Sterling K. Brown, Jeffrey Wright, and Erika Alexander star in the witty dramedy “American Fiction,” now playing at Amherst Cinema.

Sterling K. Brown, Jeffrey Wright, and Erika Alexander star in the witty dramedy “American Fiction,” now playing at Amherst Cinema. Photo by Claire Folger/2023 Orion Releasing LLC/via AP

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 01-19-2024 11:39 AM

Though it had only an initial limited theatrical release, and did not appear until December, “American Fiction” has already popped up on a number of critics’ “best films of 2023” lists, and the movie has been nominated for a slew of awards.

The buzz is warranted. “American Fiction,” which just opened at Amherst Cinema, is a deft mix of comedy and drama, with wicked satire that takes aim at Black caricatures. It also offers a central group of likable characters who portray a family with real heart, despite the baggage and imperfections of a typical family.

It’s a merciless send-up as well of the publishing and moviemaking industries, notably in its portrait of how whites perceive “authentic” Black experiences. It’s hard to imagine this is the debut film of director and television writer Cord Jefferson, a former journalist turned TV writer; he’s hit a home run on his first swing.

At the heart of “American Fiction,” which is based on the 2001 novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett, is Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a California academic and author who opens the film as he leads a college class on American Southern fiction. On a whiteboard behind him is the title of a Flannery O’Connor short story, “The Artificial [N-word].”

A white student named Brittany says she finds the word offensive and complains about having to look at it during the class. Monk, who’s Black, notes that other objectionable terms are also part of the course and eventually says, “With all due respect, Brittany, I got over it. I’m pretty sure you can, too.”

Brittany is next seen stalking out of the class, and the film cuts to another room where three college administrators discuss the incident with Monk and suggest he take some time off, evidently because he’s had a few other clashes with students. Maybe he can stay in his hometown of Boston, since he’s already headed there for a literature conference.

“I hate Boston! My family’s there,” says Monk. “You know that all successful writers are tormented by their families.”

Monk may not be tormented, but he’s pretty tightly wound — a bit of a curmudgeon, really. And he’s frustrated: a well-regarded writer whose novels don’t sell. He’s also pissed over how his books are labeled. Back in Boston, he confronts a hapless clerk in a chain bookstore where his work is on the shelves of the “African American Studies” section.

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“These books have nothing to do with African American studies,” says Monk. “They’re just literature. The blackest thing about this one is the ink.”

Next, he gathers all his books in his arms, intent on moving them to the fiction section of the store, the clerk sputtering “Stop!” behind him.

Monk is also pissed that Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), another Black writer with a smart academic pedigree like his, is penning bestsellers that trade on African American stereotypes, like her newest book, “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.”

Monk attends a reading Golden gives for her new book, where a mostly white audience is enraptured. Disgusted at what he sees as her pandering, he goes back to his family home, pops opens his laptop, and quickly pounds out a parody of a novel that he titles “My Pafology,” using the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh.

He passes it to his literary agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), who’s previously told him his books don’t sell because they’re not “black” enough. That won’t be an issue with this new work, says Monk.

“It’s got deadbeat dads, rappers, crack, and [the main character] gets killed by a cop at the end … If [publishers] want stereotypes, I’ll give them one.”

“Nobody is going to publish this,” says Arthur.

“I just want to rub their noses in it,” Monk replies.

Surprise, surprise: “My Pafology” quickly grabs the attention of a major publisher, Paula Braderman (Miriam Shor), who wants to give “Mr. Leigh” $750,000 for it. It’s “raw” and “honest,” she says, and she wonders during a conference call with Monk and Arthur if it’s based on his life.

With silent coaching by Arthur, Monk affects a gravely new “hood” voice, saying, “Yeah! You think some bitch-ass college boy can come up with that sh*t?”

The book is soon a huge bestseller, enhanced by an additional fiction Arthur creates that Stagg R. Leigh is a convict who’s on the run. An oily Hollywood mogul (Adam Brody) takes a meeting with Monk, claps him on the back, calls him “brother” — then asks him if he did time for murder. He’s offering $4 million for the book rights.

Family history

Monk fears he’s created a monster that might devour him, and he’s already got plenty of family issues to deal with. His mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), has increasing dementia; his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), has been taking care of her, but tragedy soon engulfs her life, and Monk has to turn for help from his younger brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), a plastic surgeon who lives in Arizona.

Jefferson steadily fills in the family’s background to show how their ties have frayed over the years. Monk and Cliff’s late father, a doctor, was a volatile serial philanderer, and the brothers’ response has to become pretty distant to each other. Cliff’s life has also recently been upended after he’s come out as gay, causing his marriage to collapse and his kids to shun him.

Yet Cliff has a force and a sense of humor his brother lacks, and he wants Monk to find a way to come out of his emotional shell: “People want to love you, Monk ... You should let ’em love all of you.”

As he wrestles with a decision to put his mother into a care center for dementia patients, Monk has an opportunity to come out of that shell when he meets a public defender, Coraline (Erika Alexander), who’s read some of his books and liked them; she’s drawn to his quiet manner.

The two strains of the movie — the comic bits with Stagg R. Leigh and the drama involving Monk and his family members — seem to move on separate tracks. But they begin to merge in an excellent scene in which Monk, increasingly stressed from hiding his identity as the bestselling writer, snaps at Coraline; she tells him to leave her house.

Things really come to a head when Monk ends up a judge for a literary award. One of the other panelists is fellow panderer Sintara Golden — and his blockbuster book is entered into the competition, causing some of the white panelists to swoon over it. “I am thrilled to read a BIPOC man harmed by our carceral state,” one woman says.

In the end, “American Fiction” is a well-acted, well-paced film that gets the balance between comedy and drama just right. And Wright, who’s had significant roles in film and on stage but has primarily been a character actor, grounds the movie as a complicated man who bounces from anger to exasperation to disappointment to determination.

“American Fiction,” which was filmed in Boston and Scituate, plays at the Amherst Cinema at least through Jan. 25. Check amherstcinema.org for further details.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.