Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, American Fiction puts Jeffrey Wright front and center as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a novelist-turned-professor who has been critically praised but popularly ignored. Ellison has always been righteously opposed to the racial tropes he sees in published fiction and Hollywood productions about Black life in the United States, and finds a new foil in Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), a new popular author who plays up the stereotypes in her writing. Meanwhile, Ellison is banging his head against the ups and downs of his familial relationships with his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams), sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), and brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), as well as his mother’s caregiver Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor). This is fiction – but it feels incredibly real.
The film is laugh out loud funny, messing with the stereotypes presented by Golden and later Ellison. Ellison ends up writing a manuscript out of his frustration with what sells – he ends up unexpectedly posing at an escaped convict-turned-author with 1/100th of Ellison’s refinement – and his mother’s longterm health care. And it is lapped up by his agent, the publishing company, the public, and even the authors’ award judges – except for Golden. He’s embarrassed and frustrated by the book’s success, but the money rolls in.
Ellison’s frustration isn’t just with the book: he’s dealing with grief over death, over dementia, over failing to have his real life’s work appreciated, over his broken relationship with Cliff, who is making some life-altering decisions of his own. All of these negatives are his real life struggles as a man, as a Black man, as an author. And they are nothing like what he’s written about, a story about nothing in his own mind, but what the public, Black and white, are looking for according to the agent, the publishing house, and sales themselves.
I can’t relate to Wright’s Ellison: I’m neither as educated nor Black. But I have been published, over and over again online and now in printed form, and there is a constant struggle between writing from one’s heart and what one writes to get clicks, get read, get published on a broader stage. This movie is about Black life in America, but it’s also about being real to one’s self, being authentic. Wright’s Ellison posits this in one fantastic scene where he collects his unsold work in a book story in the “African American Literature” section and moves it. He says, “it’s just literature.” What about our lives individually, or our culture communally, needs to be moved until it’s somewhere authentic?
My ‘take’ on Ellison is that he’s not comfortable in his own skin. Yes, he’s written authentically, and he’s battling against ‘woke’ culture and culture in general (an early scene of his classroom nails this). But he’s not really engaging his community (or his family) so he’s isolated and pushed to the margins. He knows what he feels, but he hasn’t really taken time to consider how other people feel. To be comfortable with oneself requires being aware of who one is by oneself and in relationship to others. (John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.”) To figure out who he is and what he was created for means putting aside his judgmental otherness and engaging people where they are, not with derision or trying to change them. That’s more of a moral than Ellison says in his story’s ending (which is wonderfully displayed, Choose Your Own Adventure-style) but it’s the reality of life, and the film is just… fiction.