American Fiction (2024.6, Engaging , Savvy )

American Fiction is about racial stereotyping cast as a delicious comedy and moving drama. It is also, I think, a story about its own creation. (4*)
American Fiction
American Fiction

American Fiction – Snapshot

American Fiction is a movie about racial stereotyping told through the lens of a satirical story with a dramatic background.  In addition to the combination working to raise both emotion levels, the film should also be viewed as a meta-statement about its own creation! (4*)

Where to Watch:

Stream: MGM+

Rent/Buy:  Prime/Fandango ($4) Apple ($5) Google ($6)

American Fiction – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations (5) / Oscar Wins (1) :

Best Picture

Adapted Screenplay (Cord Jefferson) WINNER

Leading Actor (Jeffrey Wright)

Supporting Actor (Sterling K. Brown)

Film Editing (Laura Karpman)

American Fiction placed seventh  of all 38 Oscar-nominated films this year with my OQI score of 10. (Tied with The Holdovers and Anatomy of a Fall).  Like our last film, which had a very similar nomination pattern, this film is what I call a “storyteller” film which means it should have some great characters and story, but not necessarily a dazzling screen presence. 

Laura Karpman wrote the musical score for the movie and properly evoked a jazz vibe for most of the film.  With a lot of piano and clarinet she synchs up the funny and moving moments in the film with matching musical infusions.  Although the sign of a good score is usually that you don’t notice it too much, in this case the music is worth paying attention to.  I liked this score better than the other Original Score entry (Killers of the Flower Moon), but there are three more to listen to so it is a little early to declare my own favorite.  Karpman studied at Juilliard and has done the music for several TV movies and series episodes dating back to 1989, but hasn’t worked any other feature films that I recognize.

This is our second film nominated – and it won the Oscar – for Adapted Screenplay.  Like Karpman, Director and Writer Cord Jefferson is also better known in the TV world and, in fact, this is his first movie screenplay.  He has managed to combine, with rare aplomb, both comedy and drama.  The comedy comes from a Black writer trying to accommodate white popular publishers and readers – against his better judgment. The drama is the writer’s strained and very real relationships with the rest of his family.  Jefferson based the script on the book Erasure by Perceval Everett, a professor of creative writing at the University of Southern California.  (I confess that I have not read the book and, therefore, can’t attest to the screenplay’s fidelity to the source.  My wife enjoyed the movie so much, though, that she downloaded the book but is not finding it as funny!) 

Should it have won the Oscar in this category?  I’m not sure.  For one thing, I still haven’t seen three of the other contenders.  But I also had a very positive feeling for  Gerwig’s script for Barbie – although I also thought that the Barbie script should have been in the Original category!  Furthermore, I have some issues with the ending of American Fiction, something I talk about more in the last section.

Clearly a lot of what makes this film work is the stellar performance from Jeffrey Wright, as Monk.  This is Wright’s first Oscar nomination.  He graduated from Amherst College in 1987 with a degree in political science, but then started stage acting in New York City.  He has also appeared in TV shows but made his feature film reputation as a powerful supporting actor.  He has been Daniel Craig’s Felix Leiter in most of the recent James Bond films, played Lt. James Gordon in The Batman, appeared in The French Dispatch and had a role in the Hunger Games series.  In American Fiction watch how he ably captures the satirical and dramatic sides of this complex role.  There is one scene when he is with his agent where, after proposing that his book title be changed to “FUCK”, the white publishers gush at how daring, bold, and “Black” it is.  Monk buries his head in the desk in disbelief.  He captures both the tragic and comic nature of the scene perfectly.

The movie is focused on the trials and tribulations of Wright’s character, Thelonius (Monk) Ellison.  But he has an entire cast of excellent supporting actors including Tracie Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, and Issa Rae, all of whom did terrific jobs.  But Sterling K. Brown was nominated for Supporting Actor and his role in the film is of particular importance.  Brown has appeared in substantial numbers of TV movies and episodes and has voiced several animated films, but the only feature film that I know, that he has been in is Black Panther.  As Monk’s younger brother, Clifford, his role in American Fiction is to serve as the counterfoil to Monk’s “oldest brother” predilection to view the family unit as a bit more perfect than it really was.  Brown infuses his character – who is a successful plastic surgeon in Tucson, recently divorced and gay – with all the confidence and doubt that would come from all those socially conflicting roles.  His purpose in the film is to get Monk to see that he can’t pretend any longer to have all the answers.  And Brown ably does that from the carefree role of the younger brother.

Supporting Actor and Actress nominations are always very hard to judge, in my opinion, because, by definition, their success or failure is in how they promote/support the leading actor/actress.  Ryan Gosling did a precious job supporting Margot Robbie in Barbie, but Robbie didn’t get a nomination.  And, of course, Robert De Niro can never go wrong, although he had almost no scenes with the Leading Actress nominee, Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon.  So maybe the most apt comparison, so far,  would be to the nominated pair in Nyad, Annette Bening and Jody Foster – but the problem there is neither of those two were sympathetic characters, so although Foster did well, and possibly outperformed Bening, it is difficult to appreciate the pairing.  We have one more pairing coming up with Oppenheimer so we’ll finish this conversation then.

With three major nominations and a nod in the Original Score category, it isn’t surprising that American Fiction was also in the running for Best Picture.  Since there are still five more in this category to be seen, I will wait to give my own ranking.  But despite the two movies being very different in emotional depth, I still think Barbie is a better overall movie experience largely because it not only tells an interesting story, but it is also so much fun to watch.  American Fiction is really all about the story.

American Fiction – Related Movies

No Time to Die/ Hunger Games / The French Dispatch/The Batman (Wright)

Black Panther (Brown)

American Fiction – What Others Think

American Fiction is rated fourth, out of 24, on my combined audience rating scales, tied with Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning and The Holdovers. (Although it should be noted that my two measures are definitely not consistent making this measurement unreliable.)  Interestingly, viewers who didn’t like it so much seemed to dislike either the satire or the family drama – did they miss the intimate connection? (There were also some people upset about the overly simplistic portrayal of white folk – which, to me, means they may have missed the whole point of the film!)

Somewhat surprisingly, critics rated American Fiction lower than audiences did, ranking it 11th out of 24 general interest films.  Peyton Robinson (RogerEbert) thought the film “heavy-handed” and that it took a “coarse approach to inspiring emotion.” Robinson also said that it “often treats its Black women as accessories to the story”.  I find that comment a little strange since the movie is about the leading character and everyone else is just supporting his story.  (Would Robinson have said the same thing about the men in Nyad?)  But of the reviews I read, her opinion seems to be in the minority.  Her colleague, Robert Daniels, lauds Wright’s performance saying he displays “dry wit” and “offers some of his best internal work and caustic readings.”  And Amy Nicholson (New York Times) gave the film a Critics Pick and called it a “cagey, cerebral dramedy”.  She argues that the “Satire is just a wraparound gimmick for a marvelously acted, naturalistic drama about a prickly, privileged Black man and his family…”. Her work colleague, Pamela Paul, wrote “What American Fiction does is what art should do: illuminate a universal truth about ourselves.”  I can appreciate both sets of criticisms and have more observations in the last section.

American Fiction – Special Mention

Stagg R. Leigh – yes, that name is the pen name our lead character, Monk, uses to write what is initially titled “My Pafology”.  Although I had no idea who that was, the name reminded my wife Joan (bless her heart for giving me something to write about) of a song called Stagger Lee, recorded by Lloyd Price in 1957 which hit the charts two years later.  Price, however, was not the author of that song, nor the first to cover it.  It is an American folk song about a real murder in St. Louis, Missouri on Christmas, 1895.  It was originally published in 1911 and recorded in 1923 by Fred Waring.  It has been covered by  artists across the entire musical spectrum, including Pat Boone, Ike and Tina Turner, the Righteous Brothers, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, and – one of my all time favorites – The Grateful Dead.  

You can find the lyrics on-line and listen to any one of several recordings of the song.  It is, indeed, about the murder of one Black man by another over a gambling incident, but goes well beyond that evoking Black gospel music and a thinly veiled message about white oppression.  Interestingly, no-one in the movie ever comments on the name which might be a key part of the film’s message.  (I even found a scholarly article titled “The Hidden Message in Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee” from 2014). Bottom-line:  Stagg R. Leigh was a meaningful choice of pen-name!

“Black Books” – American Fiction is all about a Black author trying to find success writing.  Thelonius (Monk) Ellison has earned a Ph.D. and teaches Literature at the college level somewhere in Southern California. (This isn’t really a spoiler, because it’s all laid out in the first few minutes of the movie.). But his last published book was several years earlier and he’s been struggling to get anything new published.  At one point he complains to his agent that he has had nine rejections.  (Note: Hemingway once received 27 rejections for one of his major novels!). But Monk is Black and maybe that sets up some special obstacles?  To answer that question I did a little research into publishing economics to understand the dynamics of that world.

First question was on the demand side – do “Black” people read as much as “White” folks?  And the answer I found is maybe not, but be careful how you interpret that.  Statista reports that in 2021, 78% of whites had read a book in the last 12 months as opposed to 74% of Blacks!  Not only is that percentage possibly within the margin of sampling error, but those numbers do not control for class (and the resources to purchase books).  My net take is that there is no measurable difference between whites and Blacks in the desire to read books. 

So, what about supply?  Are there channels to send “Black” books to “Black” readers?  Well, sort of.  Despite the suggestions of American Fiction, not all publishing houses are “White”. identifies ten U.S. publishing houses that are “Black owned” (did they stop at ten, or are there just ten, I’m a little uncertain.). But the total number of titles published by these ten companies, as of January, 2023, is 2776, a piddling number compared to somebody like Penguin Random House which had a catalog of print and ebooks of more than 85,000 titles!  

However a single “Black-owned” company, Africa World Press & The Red Sea Press, accounts for more than 1800 of those titles.  That company’s focus is “history and cultural publications, with a focus on the content of Africa.”  In other words, not fiction, like the book Monk was trying to sell.  In fact, out of the top ten “Black-owned” companies, I only found two that were interested in current fiction.  Their total number of current titles numbered around 300.  In short, if an author is identified as Black, wants to market a work of fiction that isn’t “Black”, his/her options are very limited!  Monk’s battle for publication appears to be very real.

American Fiction – Michael’s Moments

American Fiction is what they call a “dramedy” and falls into both drama and comedy genres.  It is difficult enough to succeed in one of those genres, much less both at the same time.  The wonder of such efforts is in how the two strains of thought reinforce each other and help build a powerful and often conflicting set of emotions.  As noted earlier, some viewers, both casual and professional, have had a hard time with this film which suggests that maybe it doesn’t quite find a coherent whole.  And, as I will argue, I think that ambivalence creates an issue for writer/director Jefferson in the way he ended this film.

The satire in American Fiction is an obvious thread from the beginning.  Our lead character, Monk, is obviously Black and is a college professor teaching a literature class.  He writes the title of a book on the blackboard and is confronted by a white student who has issues with a word in the title (“Nigger”) and is offended by the prospect of having to view that word through the rest of the class period.  Monk replies that he doesn’t understand why and suggests that if he has made peace with it, then she certainly can.  (It is difficult not to find similarities between this and the current campus debate over anti-Semitic speech!)

So, right at the start we have the situation of a white person being more offended by a racial slur than a black person.  The comedy develops from that premise as Monk, who hasn’t been able to get his recent fiction book published, decides to play a practical joke on his publishing world by giving them exactly what they want, an uninhibited ghetto expose cutely titled “My Pafology”.  And so the satire builds and builds to the point where white publishers are literally gushing over every extreme measure he takes in the book and the white lies he tells about his own background.  The satire even goes to the extreme when he proposes a change to the title of the book to a word that most newspapers can’t print.  When the book comes up for an award, it is the white judges who are rooting for it, while the black judges find it pandering and poorly written.  (The white judges state that they need to listen to black voices while ignoring those from their fellow judges sitting right next to them!)  The contrast between the  two racial perspectives is unnervingly hilarious.

But American Fiction goes even further by giving Monk an extremely interesting personal and family life.  Despite the black ghetto biography of the book’s supposed author, Stagg R. Leigh, the real author comes from what I would call an upper-middle class professional family.  Although his dead father apparently had some issues, his sister is a medical doctor working at a family planning clinic, his brother is plastic surgeon in Tucson, and his Mother, whose health is failing, owns two homes, including a beach house, with the back door facing the ocean, south of Boston, and has a live-in housekeeper who is obviously been with the family for decades.  In short, Monk’s real life is nothing like Stagg R. Leigh’s.  All of which further develops the comic tension.

Add to all that the interplay between Monk and his family members and Monk’s budding relationship with the woman across the street and you bring in the drama that any complex family comes with.  Monk learns that his impression of life, as the oldest, isn’t shared by his younger siblings who developed different models of their family and even of Monk.  He also has to face his own inability to truly open up to another person and where that comes from.

It is this curious interplay of Monk’s home life that makes his experience in the white publishing world so much fun!  He has a real life in a real world that is so very different from what his publishers think he is living.  And yet when he tries to be himself, the publishers aren’t interested.  They have a preconceived notion of what “Black literature” is supposed to be and if Monk wants success, which his family life ends up making important to him, then he has to conform to that notion.  He has to bend, or even break, his self-image to give the white world what they want, even if it is false.  The whole book situation is greatly exaggerated, but that makes the emotional connection of how absurd it really is.  I found the interplay of these two stories to be the best thing about the film. 

Now, one last point.  After they start making a movie out of “My Pafology” – which has been renamed to “Fuck” – Monk goes to Wiley, the one making the movie (oh, and Wiley is also the name of a major publishing house), with a new idea for a second movie, and we see them discussing and visualizing three possible endings.   Of course each of the three endings provokes a different emotional reaction.  Normally, I don’t like it when a movie doesn’t have the courage to end the way the director views it, but, instead, gives the viewer different options to choose from.  It suggests that the filmmaker hasn’t really figured out what message to leave with their audience – kind of a gutless failure to make a stand. 

But something different may be going on here.  Cord Jefferson is making the point that different people are going to view the same movie in different ways – just as Monk viewed his book very differently from the white publishers.  As we work through these three endings, it becomes clear that the movie they are discussing is, actually, the one we are watching.  (Oh, and the working title for this movie, changed only when it looked like the movie was going to get Oscar attention, was “Fuck”!). So I’m guessing that one of the key questions of conversation after this movie is “Which ending did you like and why?” And another one is whether American Fiction is about the making of American Fiction – and is Monk really Jefferson? (4*)

American Fiction
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