American Fiction: Rewriting the Narrative

Racial issues aren’t funny. But the way that we engage it as a culture can be laughable.

In American Fiction, Thelonius ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a well-respected professor of English literature but he is struggling to leave his mark on the literary world himself. His latest novel has failed to catch on with publicists who claim that his story isn’t ‘Black’ enough. Seeking some fresh air, he returns home to visit his family and participate in a literary festival. But after a family tragedy puts him in a financial bind, Monk decides to pander to the common reader with a fictional story about Black misery.

Written and directed by Cord Jefferson, American Fiction is as insightful as it is incisive with its satire. Based on the book Erasure, it’s sharply-written and executed in the way that it challenges assumptions about race in modern culture. Fiction knows how to address the concept of race while laughing at the way it’s shaped by cultural stereotyping.

To put it simply, American Fiction is funny, fierce and one of the best films of the year.

Leading the way is an absolutely incredible performance by Wright. With heart and humour, Wright bares a little piece of his soul through the Harvard-educated author. Whether he is arguing with students about the right to read outdated literature or grappling with the challenges of a mother with Alzheimer’s, Wright’s Monk carries himself with a conflicted charm. Although he’s a man of reason and logic, his character is also one of deeply rooted emotions. With a nuanced performance, Wright breathes life into Monk, giving him a likability and warmth that balances out his cooler persona.

One of the things that’s most interesting about Fiction is its split narrative. On the one hand, Jefferson follows Monk through his journey in the literary world, exploring notions of white guilt and the way that it reinforces stereotypes through its efforts to be more ‘multicultural’. On the other, he weaves an intricate and touching drama that challenges Monk’s misperceptions about the world and his family.

But Fiction’s double narrative work together to serve a singular focus. 

In essence, this is a film that asks what it means to share black stories. Although a guilt-riddled white culture believes that the celebration of race stems from acknowledging the struggles with poverty, we see none of those issues within Monk’s family. As each child seems to have found some success, they have come to represent the (somewhat struggling) middle class. However, that is not to say that they’re free from problems. For Monk’s family, their greatest battles are the same ones that anyone can face. Dealing with an elderly parent, struggling with sexuality, divorce and the death of family members are meant to feel like a common experience that are not typically celebrated as Black culture. 

Monk acknowledges that life in poverty is a part of the Black experience in America but he pushes back against the notion that it’s the totality of it. He argues that his stories offer insight into the Black experience simply because he is a Black author. He believes that his writing need not focus on life in hardship in order to share his heart. (In fact, at one point, he states that the ‘Blackest’ thing about one of his books is the ink.)

For Monk, diverse stories by diverse authors automatically create diverse experiences. He believes that anti-racism means acknowledging that everyone’s story matters and, by highlighting them, we learn from each other. In this way, Fiction pushes back against the notion of stereotyping within the artistic world by reminding us that true humility means opening the door for all stories to be told (and heard)

Only when we do that can we finally determine the difference between truth and Fiction.

American Fiction is available in theatres on Friday, December 14th, 2023.

Leave a Reply