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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Black writer enters satirical bout to combat cultural white-out: A review of “American Fiction” (2023)

Despite efforts to grant space to Black voices and to recognize the beauty of their sound, the existence of a Black aesthetic is mitigated by white culture. We are the majority of people who bestow the awards, have our reviews printed, determine what books are published and movies produced, and decide what is “good” and “bad.” We gave “Green Book” Best Picture in 2018 over “BlackKKlansman.” Hell, you’re reading a white guy’s take on Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” right now! While our country’s art has always been diverse, it has taken a large portion of our country’s history for the breadth of that diverse work to be equally seen, applauded and funded. 

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffery Wright) is a Black artist backed into a corner. The college where he teaches has suggested he take time off after he made a white student cry. His last book, a Black retelling of a Greek myth, hasn’t sold well because, as his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), guesses, it wasn’t “Black” enough. His mother (Leslie Uggams), suffering from a worsening case of Alzheimer’s, is without a caretaker following a sudden death in the family, and his brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), is doing his own thing. Monk needs money he doesn’t have, and after watching a reading of “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” a book by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) that seems to, from his vantage, indulge in common stereotypes, he tries writing something “Black enough” on his own in protest. The book is a joke, penned by Monk under the ashamed pseudonym “Stagg R. Leigh.” Things spiral out of control when white publishers eat the story up, along with the narrative that Leigh is a fugitive.

While the film’s satire is sharp, what strikes me about “American Fiction” is how its ludicrous comedy exists in tandem with quiet, tragic family drama. There’s the world of literature, run by white people who have no qualms with voicing their begrudging compliance with diversity initiatives and celebrating the profitability of Monk’s pandering novel. And then there’s the reality of his mother’s impending death, and a string of recent family tragedies. The film seems more interested in Monk’s complicated relationship with his brother, mother and dead father than in its critique of popular culture, but I think they’re cut from the same cloth. Monk’s attempts to come to terms with the breakdown of what was already a broken family would be of no interest to a public obsessed with seeing Black people as either gangsters or slaves. The irony of “American Fiction” is that Monk’s life story has little chance of selling compared to the highly stereotyped, pandering novel he writes.

The issue is how enthusiastically the white public curates and privileges certain stories over others. Once Monk confronts Sintara Golden on her novel, she tells him that much of its material was based on interviews conducted in underprivileged Black communities. Stories like “Boyz in Da Hood,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto Now,” have truth to them insofar as stories can be truthful. Fiction magnifies a specific lived reality, stylistically sketching an incomplete portrait of experience that speaks to a few themes that will never satisfy the unknowably deep chasm of human possibility. However, these specific stories become all the truth that white America sees in the Black experience. “American Fiction” argues that these stories of violence and suffering are all you can find when channel flipping. Black people are guns, drugs, slavery, sorrow, poverty and a dialect, as white producers and publishers see them, and these elements become types within a caricatured Commedia dell’arte that can be infinitely experimented with but never expanded beyond in the white American imagination. In one scene, Monk, playing the part of Stagg R. Leigh, talks to a white producer who lauds the industry’s use of “genre” to “elevate” what would otherwise be seen as Blaxploitation. “Plantation Annihilation” is coming out soon and will make a killing; watching the ghosts of slaves behead Ryan Reynolds will be the talk of the town.   

But the beauty of “American Fiction” is that drama that blossoms beyond the patch of white weeds that would otherwise choke the film’s humanity. Unlike the protagonist of the novel he writes, Monk’s father wasn’t a criminal, but a depressed doctor. Despite being the closest to him, Monk had the least understanding of his suicide within the family. Meanwhile, Cliff attempts to sort out his identity as a gay man in the wake of the death of a father who wouldn’t have accepted him. Their father was the one who complicated their lives the most, but now, their mother, the one who held things together, is dying. On top of the absurdity of his professional life, a lie he finds himself constructing to survive within it, he must somehow make sense of the reality in front of him.

Some may find that the film struggles to synthesize its two radically different genres, which is a fair claim to make. There’s an incredible scene in which Monk begins writing his novel and the characters appear in his study to enact the dialogue, pausing to check in with the author to ensure that things are stereotypical enough. It’s the only scene in the film with this approach, and part of me wishes we got more of its metaliterary flavor. But I think the stark separation between the two worlds reflects Monk’s struggles to keep them that way, a near Herculean task considering that one provides the funding for the other. America’s racism, and his lies in his attempt to handle it, always shape the truth of his lived experience. The film ends fittingly set to Cannonball Adderly’s rendition of “Autumn Leaves.” Even as autumn leaves begin to fall, as Black artists continue to change, experiment and expand, their art remains subject to a canon decided by people who shouldn’t, a backward “love” held by that audience that festers rather than resolves.

Rating: 4.5/5

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