“Praise without merit is more harmful than unearned criticism.” - Roger Ebert
I think if you allow them, movies can teach you something about your own life. I’m watching Pineapple Express as I write this so obviously I don’t mean every single movie ever made. Some are just meant to deliver weed and fart jokes and that’s okay. But the movies that genuinely have something to say can be enlightening if you’re open to what it is they’re trying to convey. American Fiction definitely has a lot to say.
Writer and director Cord Jefferson takes the sensitive and often volatile subject of race and makes it one of the funniest pieces of satire this decade. Add in a healthy amount of selling out and throw in a dash of familial drama and you have one of the best films of 2023. And did I mention how funny it is? Because as far as comedies go, American Fiction is top tier.
Thelonious or ‘Monk’ as he’s known to his family and colleagues is a somewhat successful novelist struggling to materialize his latest work. In the throes of severe writer’s block he is simultaneously fed up with the modern day profiting from the so-called “Black” experience. To prove his point to his friend and editorial agent, Monk creates a pen name and writes the most cliché and pandering piece of writing he can possibly imagine about what it means to be black. It contains shameless elements of drug dealing, gun violence and the average white person’s idea of how all black people speak with slang, coarse language and heavy use of the n-word.
Much to his dismay the book is an immediate success. In the days and weeks that follow he is reluctantly caught up in a whirlwind of potential book deals and guilty, out of touch white people who think praise of such material is the best way to assuage the guilt they feel about the overall situation of black Americans. He is, to put it lightly, disgusted by the entire moment his alter ego is spotlit by such drivel. With every fiber of his being he wants to turn down what is guaranteed to be a substantial amount of money for the book rights but amidst the chaos of the moment he endures great tragedy and must unexpectedly secure the well-being of his recently Alzheimer’s diagnosed mother. As we are all well aware, healthcare in this country is horrendously expensive so for the sake of his family he must accept the deal and fall down the metaphorical rabbit hole of pandering hypocrisy and selling out. Again, he isn’t pleased.
So where does this lesson come in? As a goofy white dude I can’t exactly begin to imagine what it means to be black in America. I can listen to what movies like this have to say but at the end of the day I’ll never truly be able to walk in the shoes of another race. What I can relate to is the inevitable drama of being a part of a family that you (begrudgingly?) love. As with age comes wisdom and the understanding that loving someone and liking someone are two entirely different and separate concepts. To love is to do anything you have to for those you care for. To like them means you enjoy being around them and if we’re honest with ourselves this is never promised.
Monk’s family is complicated and through tragedy is forced together to endure it. They find the reminders of why they love one another but fight incessantly at the very thought of being around each other longer than is absolutely necessary. I’ve lost those closest to me and I’ve been in the room with those I’m not overly fond of despite my overall devotion to them. If I took anything from this film is that despite the hardships, levity is still there to be found should you desire it. And maybe, if you really try hard, there is common ground for which you and all of your loved ones can stand upon with some semblance of humility, gratitude and dare I say, acceptance.
Jeffrey Wright plays Monk perfectly with utterly hysterical results. He is somehow both understandable in his detestation with the status quo and isolated in his unwillingness to listen to anyone that might differ from him on the subjects he is most passionate about. Sterling K. Brown stands out as Monk’s brother, Clifford. He is tragic and hilarious as he begins to learn how to accept himself as a newly self-discovered gay man. Erika Alexander as Coraline acts as Monk’s center in the middle of his crises professionally and personally. She matches Wright in energy and tenacity and together that light up the screen.
American Fiction is a complicated, witty, relatable and undeniable laugh riot that confronts some difficult topics and does so with relatability and fervor. The characters are complex and the dialogue is whip-smart. It is timely and I believe will prove to be timeless. The acting is superb and their trials, tribulations and successes feel effortlessly universal. I think its only real fault is that not enough people will discover and appreciate it. I spoke about in another review that giving movies a chance that I might not necessarily have great interest in is important. Poor Things with Emma Stone is a prime example of something I wasn’t anticipating and ended up thoroughly enjoying everything about it. American Fiction is very much the same. It was nowhere on my radar and will now certainly end up on my top ten of the year.
Rated R For: language throughout, some drug use, sexual references and brief violence
Runtime: 117 minutes
After Credits Scene: No
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander, John Ortiz
Directed By: Cord Jefferson
Out of 10
Story: 10/ Acting: 10/ Directing: 9/ Visuals: 8.5
Buy to Own: Yes
Check out the trailer below: