Heartland: American Fiction
Jeffrey Wright gives a winning performance in Cord Jefferson's brilliant and hilarious satire
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There’s a fine line between what is comedy and what is satire, but for whatever reason, I have always had an affinity for both. Good satire is hard to come by. Often the meaner they are, the better, but they have to come from an honest place, otherwise, the filmmakers will just be making an ass of themselves. Another necessity is the ability to be able to target everybody and make sure that nobody is safe from satirical criticism, most of all yourself.
Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut “American Fiction” has seemingly come out of nowhere, not many had heard about the film before its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the coveted People’s Choice Award. This, upon watching the film, is extremely ironic considering some of the kinds of stories that this film lambasts are the very kinds of films that have won that big prize in the past.
At the start of the film Monk, a struggling novelist and unpopular college professor, is told by his supervisors to take a leave of absence, after one of his lessons makes a liberal white student feel uncomfortable. While initially resistant, he uses the opportunity to attend a book convention, where he learns about the latest sensation in the literary world, a novel called “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto” written by rising star Sintara Golden (Issa Rae). Monk is repulsed by the novel, believing that it is full of negative black stereotypes, although everybody else, particularly wealthy white liberals, has praised the novel, considering it to be some sort of modern classic.
Monk decides to travel back home to Boston, where he reconnects with his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and his gay plastic surgeon brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown). Lisa has been taking care of their mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams), whose mental and physical state seems to be deteriorating by the day, something Monk is in denial of. When an unexpected tragedy falls upon the family, Monk decides to take his frustration out by writing an offensive “black” story of his own called “My Pafology” under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh.
The book is picked up by a prestigious publishing company, where the editors see it as the next big thing, which has Monk becoming the ultimate hypocrite, whether he likes it or not.
As you can tell, “American Fiction” has a lot on its mind, it is the antithesis to films such as “The Blind Side.” Jefferson has his own strong beliefs, specifically about how the mainstream media can’t seem to make black art without roping in trauma and negative stereotypes. While Wright’s Monk shares a lot of those same kinds of views that the film does, it also isn’t afraid to show the character’s glaring flaws.
With his distinctly snarky voice, Jefferson has solidified himself as one of the most exciting screenwriters working today. “American Fiction” can balance its satire with some touching familial drama. It's the perfect mix of sarcasm and honesty and Jefferson’s execution feels authentic.
Wright is undoubtedly one of the most underappreciated actors working in Hollywood. He’s had supporting roles in massive blockbusters like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “The Batman,” and “No Time to Die,” as well as shows like “Westworld” and Marvel’s “What If…” but he’s never been able to be the headliner, that is until now. Wright gives an outstanding lead performance, utilizing his impressive dramatic chops and his flawless comedic timing. Other highlights in the cast include Brown, who is given some powerful moments alongside Wright, and Ortiz whose comedic chemistry with Wright is one of the biggest highlights.
Through its first two acts, “American Fiction” continuously one-ups itself with its satire as well as in its commentary, it is hard not to be roped into the drama and want to know how Monk will be able to get out of his unique dilemma. The third act of “American Fiction” had the tough task of giving a satisfying payoff, while the ending feels appropriate, it also isn’t perfect, with some of the film’s central conflicts left unresolved.
Yet, it is easy to forgive “American Fiction,” especially with a final scene that hammers the film’s message home. As a whole, it’s equal parts hilarious but will stick with you. It is one of the best films you’ll see this year.