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Why American Fiction should win the best picture Oscar

<span>A lifetime swimming against the tide … Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison in American Fiction.</span><span>Photograph: Claire Folger</span>
A lifetime swimming against the tide … Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison in American Fiction.Photograph: Claire Folger

If cinema is, as Roger Ebert called it, a machine that generates empathy, few works have ever expressed the sentiment of exasperation quite like American Fiction, Cord Jefferson’s adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel Erasure. At its centre is Jeffrey Wright in a once-in-a-lifetime performance, sighing, deadpanning, and raising his eyebrows a fraction of a millimetre to show how very close he is to giving up in the face of the unshakable stupidity that is modern culture.

It takes about 30 seconds for American Fiction to stake its claim. Wright’s Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is an author and professor foolish enough to think “we’re all adults here” is ample cover to analyse and discuss the work of a writer such as Flannery O’Connor in a modern college environment. When a young white student demands he (a Black man) remove the title of one of O’Connor’s short stories from the board (it contains the N-word), we recognise the years that Monk has spent swimming against the tide in one simple closeup.

Monk faces further indignities when his agent tells him a publisher rejected his latest work because “they want a Black book.” “They have a Black book. I’m Black and it’s my book,” he retorts, before saying he doesn’t “even really believe in race” at the exact moment a Boston cab driver ignores him to pick up a white passenger. “The problem is that everyone else does,” his agent sighs back over the phone.

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Monk’s fruitless crusade to present his work in a colour-blind fashion – including yanking his books from the African American studies section to put them in general fiction (a moment inspired by author Everett’s real life) leads to a nadir in which he gives the people what they want: a lowest-common-denominator, cliche-riddled crime saga called My Pafology authored by “Stagg R Leigh.” What begins as a joke heads turns into classic Preston Sturges-style farce.

Interwoven with Monk’s identity struggle are the particulars of his family life, a path just as knotty as that of an artist trying to negotiate the public’s demands of him without accepting labels. Here Jefferson’s film shifts gears into a territory reminiscent of classics such as Terms of Endearment, Moonstruck, Hannah and Her Sisters, and You Can Count on Me – the rich, character-driven mid-budget comedy-dramas about extended family from days of yore. Sterling K Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Leslie Uggams make up the nuclear family, with Myra Lucretia Taylor, Erika Alexander and Issa Rae rounding out the remarkable cast.

Perhaps not as explosive as Oppenheimer or leaving as distinct a pink mark on our culture as Barbie, American Fiction is my best picture choice not just for “speaking to our present moment,” which makes it sound like homework, but for proving its own point. Without hitting you over the head, Monk’s struggles reveal themselves to be everyone’s struggles – whether as an individual in a family or at sea in the tribalism of wider culture. On a personal level, as a Jew who writes about film and is so frequently commissioned to pen pieces about that experience, I found some of the humour in American Fiction particularly gratifying. As such, I’m thrilled to make it my honest choice over another (very good) nominee, The Zone of Interest.