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‘American Fiction’ has the proper balance of satire and serious emotions

Some stories were made because they were ones that the writer wanted to tell. Other times, the stories are made because the writer is trying to appease the public. In a society that revolves around money, art can fall victim to giving into expectations, which includes stereotypes. That is the case for a struggling author in “American Fiction”, a film that, fortunately, was not trying to pander. This film is about how a Black author can find success as he learns the lengths he is willing to go. After all, people will do wild things in the name of money. While the film deals with some serious topics, it is thoroughly a comedy with some terrific jokes in practically every scene. “American Fiction” holds a mirror towards society and can make people think and reconsider their entertainment preferences. I found it to be possibly the most clever film of 2023. Released in theaters on Dec. 15 and on digital platforms on Feb. 6, “American Fiction” has a well-written script that has a lot to say about the modern media consumer.

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a Black author who has been having difficulty selling books. Furthermore, he is tired of being put into a box, such as being outraged that his books are put into the African American section of the bookstore when his books do not touch on topics related to that subject. When Monk observes authors like Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), who writes books that talk about poor communities with stereotypical language, he sees how white audiences eat those books up. As a joke, he decides to write a book in that style called “My Pafology.” It is the story of a man living through gang life and becoming a rough criminal. In other words, he uses all of the stereotypes he can think of. However, the joke turns out to be on him as the white publishers love the book and want to buy it. At first, Monk does whatever it takes to get the book deal to be cancelled, including changing the book’s title to “Fuck,” but the publishers still love it, so he goes through with it under the fake name Stagg R. Leigh. Meanwhile, Monk is using this money to help his mother get into a nice retirement home, as she has Alzheimer’s disease and her awareness is rapidly declining. Monk is also dealing with conflict with his partying brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) and learning to open himself up to his new girlfriend Coraline (Erika Alexander). Through all of these struggles in Monk’s personal life, he also has his new career as Stagg R. Leigh to worry about. Monk has to think about if he is willing to abandon his principles for a chance at success.

The part of Monk is a difficult one. He may not be the leading force in every scene, but he still makes substantial contributions to most scenes. In addition, the character has to feel natural. When there are characters in films that are full of exaggerated behaviors, the actor is supposed to look cheesy. When it comes to a character like Monk, the acting has to feel real so that we can understand Monk’s motivations. Wright was able to accomplish that job to a tee. He was able to have a captivating presence while also not going over the top. There are some moments that force him to stretch his abilities, such as playing the part of Stagg R. Leigh, but he is able to do these tasks successfully without overshadowing his more subtle work. Wright’s work as Monk should show he has the capability to be at the A-list level. I also appreciated the performance of Brown as Cliff. Most people know Brown from his role as Randall on “This is Us.” As Randall, Brown plays a serious character dealing with emotional breakdowns as he learns more about the tragic story of his biological family. Brown’s character in “American Fiction” is nothing like that. While both characters deal with family conflicts, Cliff is a character that likes to do cocaine, have casual sex with other men and make jokes during serious situations. Brown was able to show his capabilities as an actor with this role. For a comedy film, he was still able to serve as comedic relief. Even so, in the third act, Cliff showed a more emotional side that demonstrated how much he cares about his family. Some people believe that his Oscar nomination was not deserved. While there were some actors I believe got snubbed, Brown was far from a terrible choice and I believe this will not be his last nomination. I also want to celebrate Rae’s performance as Sintara. While she was not in that many scenes, Rae was able to display a commanding presence in every scene that she was in. Sintara was an effective foil for Monk as we got to see their different perspectives on the literary world. I wish I got to see more of her characters, as I found Sintara to be fascinating and I believe there is a deeper part of her story that the audience did not get to see. When a film is so reliant on a terrific script, there needs to be a terrific cast to support the script, which is a goal that this film accomplishes.

There are two different stories told in this film. There is a witty one about a man who accidentally stumbles into success through indulging the public. There is also a heartfelt one about the importance of family and loved ones. Personally, I preferred the comedic story that was told, as it felt more unique and intriguing, but I understand the value of the emotional parts. They provided more layers to Monk and to the film’s story as a whole. However, I felt that the story of a family trying to help out their ailing mother has been done many times before and there were not that many innovative elements added to that part of the story. While the film was probably hoping for the audience to care about the sad moments so that we could see a more fleshed-out side of Monk, I found myself mostly wanting to go back to the comedic and satirical scenes. I liked seeing the reenactment of the story that Monk was writing and how incredulous he got about publishers and producers loving his phony book. Those were the types of scenes that kept my eyes on the screen and amused me. They were the parts that had something interesting and fun to say. The parts of the film where Monk put his mother into a retirement home and had disagreements with his girlfriend felt like they could be from any movie. Those scenes were not as clever as the satire scenes that I loved. Nevertheless, I understand the need for those scenes. While I enjoyed the family scenes less, they gave some good background. I feel that the balance between the two tones worked fairly well. I would say it was a 70/30 balance in terms of the focus on Monk’s work life versus his personal life. Any more on personal life and the film would have felt unoriginal and too much more on satire would have made the film too goofy. While there were scenes that  went on too long, I think the film worked well as a whole product.

As mentioned before, the hilarity of the film is the best part. All of the quick and subtle jokes are what help this film stay on the viewers’ minds. It is no wonder why this film won Best Adapted Screenplay over films like “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie.” With films like those, there are many other aesthetic and technical elements that create the film and can overpower the actual script. In a grounded film like “American Fiction,” if the script is not entertaining, then the film has nothing. It is a film that is mostly a bunch of conversations, which can only hold attention if the conversations are actually interesting. From Sentara reading her seemingly pandering book to Monk communicating with publishers as a tough criminal that writes the book to the white publishers and producers blindly worshipping the book, there is a lot of humorous dialogue in the film. While a lot of the humor is very obvious, there are also some slightly hidden jokes that will take you a second to think about. I don’t want to reveal these jokes as I feel they are better when you experience them in the moment, but the subtle jokes are what helps “American Fiction” be effective commentary. In addition, the script also flows well, in that there were no awkward breaks or pauses in the script. Even though there are some parts of the film that I did not like very much, it still felt like every moment had a specific purpose that played out. This film was writer/director Cord Jefferson’s debut film and, based on the tightness of this film’s script and sequence of events, I hope it is not his last.

The book that this film was based on, “Erasure,” came out in 2001. The fact that the book was able to be adapted into a successful film more than twenty years after its release says something about how little society has actually changed. There are still audiences that want those tales of struggle to feed into their expectations and make themselves for being educated, like they are doing their part. Diversity is certainly important, but Monk is demonstrating that the so-called “trauma porn” is not as helpful as people believe in the modern era. As a white person, I cannot comment too much about the effects that those types of books and movies have. That being said, I immediately understood the phenomenon that was talked about in this film and the scenarios described did not sound that unrealistic. The film can make anyone question the media choices that they have made in the past. If “Fuck” was a real book, would it actually be a bestseller? It seems exaggerated in the film, but what makes a film an entertaining satire is the element of truth. Only time will tell if this story will still be relevant in another twenty years. If you want to see satire about cultural representation in the media or you want a blend of funny jokes and heartfelt family connections, watch “American Fiction” today.

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