American Fiction (2023)

Superb ‘American Fiction’ has the Wright stuff

Ralph Ellison famously said, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” It’s a truth another writer named Ellison is about to discover in “American Fiction,” a scathing indictment of society’s penchant for reducing people to stifling stereotypes. The irony, and a potent one, is that Thelonious Ellison, aka Monk, unearths his long-dormant identity by plunging kicking and screaming into the very cliches he seeks to dispel.

That this epiphany transpires in and around Boston, a city still marred by the stain of the Chuck Stuart fiasco, only enhances the impact of Cord Jefferson’s debut as a writer-director. He has much to say on the subject of race, enlisting Monk as a surrogate in unleashing righteous frustration over how minority artists are expected to grovel and pander to straight, white America’s preconceptions of gender and race.

It’s tempting to regard this delicious film as a quasi-remake of “Tootsie,” replacing a white actor with a Black author so fed up with the system that he opts to parody it by joining the club, only to be seduced by the potential wealth selling out offers. (As Monk puts it, “The dumber I behave the richer I get.”) And like Dustin Hoffman, a never-better Jeffrey Wright must assimilate by pretending to be something he is not. In this case, Stagg R. Leigh, a wanted fugitive from “the hood” who speaks in Ebonics about a world rife with deadbeat dads, violent drug dealers and the “hos” who love them.

Wright is a scream as the erudite college professor utterly ill at ease with the resulting hypocrisy, as his mock novel, titled “F–k,” becomes an instant Times best-seller promising a multi-million dollar movie deal starring Michael B. Jordan. Worse, he must keep his alter ego a secret from everyone except his enabling agent, Arthur (a terrific John Ortiz), who hears cash registers ringing in his sleep. It’s a full-bodied performance in which Wright proves a master at deadpan humor within the scope of a film that ultimately is less satire than it is an accentuation of the importance of family, relationships and staying true to one’s self.

Wright’s generosity of spirit is admirable, playing straight man to an array of colorful supporting characters who are as entertaining as they are touching. Chief among them is an outstanding Sterling K. Brown as Monk’s gay, plastic-surgeon brother, Cliff, a man who knows all too well the cost of living a lie and has the bank-breaking divorce settlement to substantiate it. The two actors play off each other beautifully, managing to reveal a glimpse of love behind a contentious facade of long-buried grievances.

They are the heart and soul of “American Fiction.” But not far behind is the budding romance between Monk and Coraline (Erica Alexander, wonderful), a Quincy-based public defender who, like the Ellisons, owns a charming beach-side home in Scituate. It’s tough to decide what’s more inspiring, the Chamber of Commerce-approved backdrops or the lovely courtship unfolding in the foreground. Call it a draw.

Yes, love is all around in Scituate, where the Ellison family’s devoted housekeeper, Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), is attracting the attention of a long-time admirer security cop (Raymond Anthony Thomas), and Cliff is hosting a host of hunky men. But my deepest affection is reserved for the legendary Leslie Uggams as Monk and Cliff’s rapidly fading mom, Agnes. At 80, her character may be growing feeble, but Uggams is as dynamic as ever, imbuing Agnes with such an air of elegance and sophistication that you almost forgive the cruelty she inflicts via her open condemnation of Cliff’s homosexuality.

As you may discern, “American Fiction” is very much a message movie committed to spreading the word about tolerance, understanding and the power of love. But the beauty of Jefferson’s delivery is that it never feels preachy. He’s the rare filmmaker who knows how to effortlessly engage your empathy as well as your funny bone. And I can’t overemphasize how laugh-out-loud hilarious his film is, with much of that levity courtesy of a too-brief turn by Tracee Ellis Ross as Monk’s sister, Lisa. But the consistent scene-stealer is Issa Rae as the bane of Monk’s existence, celebrated author Sintara Golden, whose outlandish novel, “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” gets his blood boiling so hot (he labels it “Black trauma porn”) that he feels compelled to retaliate with “F–k,” the “most lucrative joke ever written.”

Based on the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett, “American Fiction” is indeed a story for these turbulent us-versus-them times, as the nation becomes immersed in constricting people to their most basic identities. Like Monk, many of us are guilty of an inability to relate to people different from ourselves. It’s a distrust born out of the irrational fear of the other. Jefferson effectively taps into this unhealthy environment by employing a form of satire harkening back to the late Norman Lear and “All In the Family,” which similarly addressed a divided nation with laughter and irony.

That’s a lofty achievement for a first-time filmmaker. Yet Jefferson nails it with the perfect mix of style and substance, a triumph enriched by an evocative jazz score by Laura Karpman and sumptuous cinematography by Christina Dunlap that perfectly captures the natural beauty of Boston and the South Shore. But none of it would be possible without the Oscar-level execution by Wright. How he renders a guy as smug and arrogant as Monk remotely likable is a wonder. To then transform that pomposity into Stagg R. Leigh at the turn of a dime is beyond belief, rivaling Gene Wilder in “Silver Streak” for playing “Black” to the heights of hilarity.

The likes of “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Oppenheimer” may be generating all the Oscar buzz, but don’t underestimate the very meta “American Fiction.” Like the novel within the movie, it’s undoubtedly “awards bait.” But it’s the type of lure you’re willing to bite – hook, line and sinker.

Movie review

American Fiction

Rated: R for some drug use, brief violence, sexual references and language throughout

Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Sterling K. Brown, Leslie Ugghams, Erica Alexander, John Ortiz, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross and Myra Lucretia Taylor

Director: Cord Jefferson

Writer: Cord Jefferson

Runtime: 113 minutes

Grade: A

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