American Fiction Review
American Fiction (2023) Film Review, a movie directed by Cord Jefferson, written by Percival Everett and Cord Jefferson and starring Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Keith David, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Raymond Anthony Thomas, Okieriete Onaodowan, Miriam Shor, Michael Cyril Creighton, Patrick Fischler, Neal Lerner, J.C. MacKenzie and Jenn Harris.
Cord Jefferson has crafted one of the most ingenious movies of the year with American Fiction, a film which features Jeffrey Wright, a true actor’s actor at the top of his craft. This is the type of movie that isn’t easy for the audience to formulate its opinion about right away. It takes time to truly think about the premise after the movie concludes. And, in thinking hard about the picture, it’s easy to say that this is one of the most well-written films of the year until its very last moments where it feels like it comes up a little short. It’s all build-up and then when we’re ready for the payoff, the movie sort of pulls the plug on what all the anticipation seems to be leading up to. But, getting to the conclusion is a tremendously thought-provoking experience with one of the brightest scripts of the cinematic year at the movie’s disposal. Wright is a master performer and creates a three-dimensional character with one of the best male characterizations of the year.
In the movie, Wright plays a Black writer named Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison who gets an unwanted break from his teaching job when one of his female students is offended at the presence of the “n-word” on the blackboard. For whatever reason, the talented Thelonious hasn’t written a book in some time. One of his colleagues actually claims to have written three books since Thelonious’s last published work.
What American Fiction does so well is immerse the viewer in the world of book publishing where readers can admire something that has no true value in the real word but exists solely as a piece of art, good or bad. Something having no objective value in contrast with reality could possibly be the case with a recent book written by Sintara Golden (the wonderful Issa Rae). This book has a dumb title and when Sintara does a reading on a talk show, the whole work seems a bit overly dramatic and exaggerated.
On a whim, Thelonious sort of emulates the tone of Sintara’s book with a work of his own. This results in a book that Thelonious’s agent (John Ortiz) reveals a publisher want to buy. Of course, Thelonious’s actual name is not on the project which helps make people come to believe the book is written by a real Black convict. Naturally, Thelonious never expected this book to be taken seriously. However, a publisher comes calling with a huge financial book deal which leaves Thelonious scratching his head in wonder.
Meanwhile, Thelonious loses his sister Lisa (a fine Tracee Ellis Ross) in the interim. The developed early scenes between Ross and Wright are some of the best in the movie and shed light on the main character’s family life. It turns out that their mom (Leslie Uggams) needs to be put in a home for her erratic behavior. One sequence in the movie has Thelonious’s fictional author persona meeting with a producer (Adam Brody) as Thelonious entrusts his agent to watch the mom. When something seems to happen in the building the mother is in, Thelonious shows his concerns and leaves the producer to go see if everything is OK.
Thelonious enters a book contest as a judge and when the book nobody knows he wrote is entered, it obviously complicates the judging process as Thelonious wrote the book himself. This movie explores the fact that Thelonious’s alternate persona could tell publishers anything about the backstory behind the book and they’ll buy it hook, line and sinker. The situation regarding Thelonious’s surprise success doesn’t allow for him to reveal his true identity to those who love the new book, nor do people recognize that it is Thelonious’s work. He didn’t write it to be taken seriously. What reason, if any, did he actually write this book and why is it so popular?
Sterling K. Brown, in a knockout performance, plays Thelonious’s gay brother Clifford who suffers from not having told their dad he was gay before the father passed away. Clifford has true family issues that are hard to resolve but he’s still family and Thelonious must confront this fact during the course of the movie. Brown shines in his screen time in this movie. As Thelonious’s girlfriend, Coraline, Erika Alexander is also a stand-out. Even Coraline comes to admire the book Thelonious wrote but she doesn’t know he wrote it and Thelonious resents the fact that Coraline likes it because he never intended for it to be liked, especially by his girlfriend.
Wright has a juicy role here. He digs deep inside his character and comes up aces with this part. He’s a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The movie opens up a can of worms in its story line and although audiences will want to see the truth come out, it’s debatable if the promise of the truth being revealed would help or hurt Wright’s character’s career. This film chooses an ending which seems to push the major issues the movie addresses to the side but, perhaps, audiences aren’t ready for the path this story could have taken had it ended with a more intense, thought-provoking conclusion.
Some of the scenes surrounding the writing contest are so good, they’re scary. They demonstrate how judges could select to read only part of the books they are judging and that even distinguished professionals have their faults and can admire a book which really isn’t that good. Judges are just as flawed as everyone else.
Issa Rae and Jeffrey Wright share the single best scene of the movie as they discuss the book Rae’s character has written and Thelonious makes some valid points which ruffle Sintara’s feathers. Rae is wonderful in her brief screen time in the picture and watching her and Wright is like watching two masters of their craft. Too bad the scene gets interrupted when the discussion starts to get really heated.
American Fiction is almost something of a satire that will keep viewers engaged in the story line throughout. It’s the perfect movie to open up discussions afterwards. Wright is so great in this role that the audience may wish the movie had that extra scene where everything that could be revealed is. Still, this is a finely crafted film which has some very meaty topics integrated into it and it will certainly get some Oscar love come nomination time.
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