'American Fiction' Contains Truths

Directed by Cord Jefferson

Starring Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Oritz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Keith David, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown

Photo courtesy of TIFF

BY Rachel HoPublished Dec 13, 2023

American Fiction comes at a time when many could benefit from understanding what it means to truly support historically marginalized voices. Terms like "diversity" and "inclusion" hold more water as buzzwords than as markers of real progress, and although voices from many walks of life are starting to be heard, there is a tendency for messages to be of a particular tone. Cord Jefferson's directorial debut (adapted from Percival Everett's 2001 novel Erasure) brings this frustration to light through Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright).

A talented author of Ivy League pedigree, Monk's success as a writer has been limited; it turns out that intellectual fare that challenges its audience doesn't sell. In contrast, a new author on the beat, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), has found instant success in her novel, We's Lives in da Ghetto, which uses African-American Vernacular English to an exaggerated degree. Monk bristles at what he deems to be pandering to white audiences at the expense of perpetuating stereotypes and prejudices, and in his own form of satirical retribution, he writes My Pafology — a codified example of everything he disdains in the current literary landscape.

To his mortification and frustration, My Pafology becomes a best-seller and is even optioned for a movie adaptation. Torn between his family's financial needs and desire to end the charade, Monk is encouraged by his agent (John Ortiz) to lean towards the former and adopt the personality of his pseudonym — an ex-convict "from the hood."

There has been early awards buzz over Wright's performance, and it's richly deserved. The humour he injects into Monk — a character purposely blandly-written in Jefferson's layered script — reveals a subtle comedic timing that punctuates each beat perfectly. As great actors do for one another, Wright is at his best when playing against his on-screen siblings Tracee Ellis Ross and Sterling K. Brown, creating varying sibling dynamics that are lived-in and deeply felt in their own unique ways. 

For all the humour and observations American Fiction brings to the table, it's the story of the Ellison family that makes the film whole. Agnes Ellison (Leslie Uggams), the Ellison matriarch battling the early stages of Alzheimer's, grounds Monk's story and sends a reminder to audiences that for all the social (and often online) battles waged, at the end of the day, our connection with one another should always prevail. 

It's easy to see why American Fiction was voted by audiences as this year's People's Choice Award winner at TIFF. Topical and intelligent, Jefferson puts forth a story that needs to be told and heard by many, serving up the narrative in a palatable but never condescending manner. It's a bit of a magic trick Jefferson pulls on the audience; there is no final message of hope or optimism. Instead, there's a far more realistic this-is-what-it-is attitude — yet somehow we leave the theatre with a light heart.

And perhaps that's the gift the film gives: with an open heart, we can see and discuss the issues at hand clearly and thoughtfully.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

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