Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction. Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

by Dwight Brown,

NNPA News Wire Film Critic


The people have spoken. Amuse them and there will be acclaim. Hence the bestowing of TIFF’s People’s Choice Award on a screen adaptation that’s fueled by wit, sarcasm and tepid drama.

It’s blatant cynicism. Those who aren’t Black buying Black books that are filled with tropes, cliches and stereotypes that fulfill previously conceived notions. The Black authors who pander to that crowd for big bucks deserve scorn too. That’s the driving force in Percival Everett’s book Erasure: A Novel. That’s the theme and storyline screenwriter Cord Jefferson (Emmy winner for Watchmen) utilizes as he attempts to transform a bleak comic tome into a big screen comedy. 

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is an intellectual, author and college professor. He hasn’t written a book that’s made a penny in years. He has a beef. Writers like Sinatra Golden (Issa Rae) are making a fortune by peddling blaxploitation books like We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. He’s pissed. So pissed he strikes back by writing a mock novel written in the same genre, under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. Surprise. He becomes a bestselling author too. But he’s ashamed, especially as he visits his family in New England. 

Jefferson’s script weaves in Monk’s personal life: elderly mother (Leslie Uggams), gay brother (Sterling K. Brown), budding romance (Erika Alexander, Get Out), ambitious agent (John Ortiz) and put upon sister (Tracee Ellis Ross). The irony and ridicule aren’t consistently laugh-out-loud funny. The family drama is shallow, like TV’s This Is Us. However, the screenplay does skewer the haughty, enigmatic world of Black establishment literature. One where being scholarly, envious and competitive is a norm and hawking manuscripts a constant challenge. Book fans and buppies may find it all entertaining. Others may yawn. 

Jefferson’s direction is very standard issue and doesn’t show much style, though he certainly has command of this production. The cinematography (Christina Dunlap) features lighting that glares when it could be subtle. The musical soundtrack is filled with soul music that breathes life into scenes that otherwise would be dull. For every negative, there’s a positive. 

This is more a character study built around self-involved archetypes than an engrossing movie with consistent momentum and deep emotions. Hard to like anyone in this urbane, literature-focused fable. Once you note the social implications, family schisms and giggle a bit, there’s nothing left to ponder. The white audiences who adored Get Out may have the same glee for this parody, even if they don’t realize that the joke is on them.

If this ambitious foray into the Black book business community has a saving grace, it’s the always amazing lead actor. Jeffrey Wright mimics egghead professors and fake ghetto writers with a zest that makes the footage worth a watch even when it doesn’t deserve it. 

As one sardonic character puts it: “Potential is what people see when what’s in front of them isn’t good enough.” American Fiction has great potential. 


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