TV writer Cord Jefferson (HBO’s Watchmen) makes an auspicious filmmaking debut with this wincingly acute comedy-drama. Jeffrey Wright, in a rare but highly satisfying lead role, plays Thelonius ‘Monk’ Ellison, an embittered literature academic whose lofty new book (a reworking of Aeschylus’ The Persians) has left publishers cold. Instead, he has to stand by and watch fellow Black novelist Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) scoop up the plaudits for her debut novel, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.
"Books like this are not real, they flatten our lives," he bemoans, believing that novels focused on Black poverty and crime do nobody any favors - especially when an author like Golden is middle class. In a fit of pique, Monk writes a stereotype-laden rejoinder in the form of My Pafology, under the assumed name of Stagg R. Leigh (who can’t go public as he’s wanted by the police). With encouragement from his agent (John Ortiz), Monk’s book is soon picked up by a major publisher, with white executives desperate to cash in on its gritty milieu.
Based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, which ruthlessly satirises the book industry, American Fiction is a wild ride. Writer/director Jefferson deftly mixes laughs with low-key drama, as Monk begins dating near-neighbour Coraline (Erika Alexander) while having to deal with issues surrounding his ailing mother (Leslie Uggams). With a third act that goes full-on meta – delivering one of the best pay-offs you’ll see all year – it’s hard not to swoon over a film this daring.
That said, some elements feel a little out of place. For one, the frequent cutaways to Thelonious’ hard-partying brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) can get a little tiresome. Then there’s the moment where My Pafology comes to life on-screen, with ‘thug-life’ characters (played by Keith David and Okieriete Onaodowan) appearing in front of the author - a scene that, ironically, must’ve looked better on paper.
Luckily, such missteps are few and far between. For the most part, this is tightly written, smartly performed, and frequently hilarious – notably in the scenes where Monk meets with Adam Brody’s ‘visionary’ Hollywood director, who is looking to craft an exploitation flick based on his book. And despite the slightly uneven pacing, Wright’s sturdy performance keeps things on an even keel. The result is a fiendishly sharp poke at questionable notions of Black representation in the modern world.
American Fiction is in US theaters now and in UK cinemas from February 2.