American Fiction is a comedy-drama film. It premiered in September, 2023, at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award. American Fiction opened wide on December 22, 2023. It stars Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, and Leslie Uggams. Wright is Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a novelist and college professor; the other characters are his family and colleagues.
American Fiction is directed by Cord Jefferson. Jefferson is a former journalist. He moved on to writing for TV, including for The Good Place. He is the recipient of an Emmy for writing, and an NAACP Image Award. American Fiction is his directorial debut. Cord Jefferson also wrote the screenplay for American Fiction.
Professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison’s novels are literary works that aspire to universal themes – that is, Monk intends his books to be appreciated by any reader, of any ethnicity. Monk reworks ancient Greek mythology into modern tales. Monk’s novels are not selling well, so he pens what he thinks the market wants from a black author, that is a book titled My Pafology, a fake memoir that depicts the criminal career of Stagg R. Leigh, a killer and fugitive from justice. Comically stupid and venal white publishers, literary judges, and filmmakers embrace My Pafology. This is because, as one black character says, “White people think they want the truth, but they don’t. They just want to feel absolved.”
Paula Baderman (Miriam Shor), a shallow, flaky, but shrewdly acquisitive white publishing executive at a prestigious publishing house, offers Monk a $700,000 advance for My Pafology. Her colleague, John Bosco (Michael Cyril Creighton), also white, is a stereotypical effeminate gay man. He quivers with childish delight over My Pafology.
White judges determining the next winner of a prestigious literary award tap My Pafology. White author Jon Daniel Sigmarsen (Bates Wilder) is a rough-hewn, blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth type and he appreciates the “realness” of My Pafology. Wiley (Adam Brody), a young white filmmaker, is busy with his latest project, Plantation Annihilation. In this film, a white couple (the male will be played by Ryan Reynolds) moves to a Southern Plantation, where they are murdered by the vengeful ghosts of slaves. Wiley meets with Monk. He embraces Monk – whom he believes to be the criminal Stagg R. Leigh – in a mock black-hoodlum-style hug. Wiley salivates over what he imagines to be the details of Monk’s criminal career. Wiley assumes that Monk is on the run for committing a murder. An ambulance stops outside the restaurant where they are meeting and Monk, worried about the health of a family member, runs out of the restaurant. Wiley is delighted, because he assumes that Stagg R. Leigh, the hoodlum on the run, left the restaurant because he heard what he thought was a police siren. My Pafology’s success proves that white powerbrokers in publishing and entertainment are all racists who oppress black people by choosing to promote novels and films that depict black people as urban criminals who speak non-Standard English and have non-traditional names.
American Fiction is based on Erasure, a 2001 novel by Percival Everett. Everett is an award-winning writer and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California. Like Monk, the main character of American Fiction, Everett has reworked ancient Greek myths into his novels. Everett’s novels focus on race. For example, I Am Not Sidney Poitier depicts the race-related misfortunes of a character who is literally named “Not Sidney Poitier.”
Prof. Everett has accumulated some interesting online reviews on his teaching from his former students including the following. “We did not have any assignments other than a journal which was turned in at the end of the year. Every class consisted of him saying hello and then turning on a western movie … ordered pizza for us for quite a few times during class … Take this class if you want an easy A (very close to zero responsibilities all semester.) Really, he wants to be friends with you … He took all of us to brunch once instead of having class. I mean, movies during class, no homework, no paper, no exams.”
American Fiction has received rhapsodic reviews from professional reviewers and fans alike. On January 1, 2024, American Fiction has a 92% professional reviewer score and a 96% audience score at Rotten Tomatoes. Salon’s D. Watkins writes, “This brilliant film not only destroys the single Black narrative, it obliterates it – and puts pressure on every single film dealing with race that will come after.” Jonathan W. Gray at The New Republic says “An unflinching and seriously funny examination of how the alchemy of race operates throughout the USA’s culture industry.” Peter Travers at ABC News insists, “Cord Jefferson’s slashingly funny satire of Black literary stereotyping is one of the best and boldest American comedies in years with a dynamite performance by an Oscar-ready Jeffrey Wright. You won’t look at race on screen in the same way again.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday named American Fiction the year’s best film.
Fan reviews at the Internet Movie Database are similarly enthusiastic, but even fans who award American Fiction high scores introduce a note of disappointment. One review that awards the film 8 out of 10 stars says, “American Fiction has a great premise … But it somehow didn’t completely land for me … it was the domestic drama part of the film that didn’t completely work for me. The movie spends a lot of time on all the ways that Jeffrey Wright feels overwhelmed by his life’s responsibilities, and it sags in some of these parts, and makes the movie feel a little bit like a slog. And I don’t know that I ever completely believed the character played by Sterling K. Brown.”
I saw the trailer for American Fiction about a month ago and I immediately knew I had to see the film. In the trailer, Jeffrey Wright, in suit and tie, enters an elegant meeting room. Onstage the beautiful Issa Rae, playing novelist Sintara Golden, is being interviewed by a worshipful white woman. The white interviewer asks Golden how she came to write her bestseller, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto. Golden replies in perfect Standard English. “Too few books were about my people. Where are our stories? Where’s our representation?” As Golden speaks, audience members nod heavily. The worshipful white interviewer begs, “Would you give us the pleasure of reading an excerpt?”
Golden reads, switching from Standard English to Ebonics. “‘Yo, Sheronda. Girl you be pregnant again?’ ‘If I is, Ray Ray is gonna be a real father this time.'”
The awe-struck audience rises for a standing ovation.
Given this trailer, I thought that American Fiction would be a fearless satire of the marketing of urban underclass lifestyles and values. I thought it would be funny. I thought it would take risks. I thought it would be a challenge for both black and white audiences to watch. I thought it would be something really new. I was disappointed on all counts. American Fiction is one of those movies about which one can truly say that if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the best parts of the movie. Had I not intended to write a review, I would have walked out of American Fiction. American Fiction is, to this viewer, inept, cowardly, and shallow. It committed the cardinal sin of any artwork. It bored me.
American Fiction’s opening scene lives up to the promise of the trailer. Monk is teaching a college literature class. On the whiteboard behind him are the words “Flannery O’Connor” – a Southern writer – and “The Artificial N—–,” the title of one of O’Connor’s short stories. A student protests. The student is an obese white girl with blue-green hair. She is offended, she insists, by the N-word written on the whiteboard. Monk is dismissive of her Woke offense. “I got over it. I’m pretty sure you can, too,” he says. After all, Monk, a black man, has had to live with the N-word directed at him and people like him. And he survived. Surely this white student can survive.
The protesting student will not be ignored. When her demand that the N-word be erased is not obeyed, the fat girl huffily marches out of the classroom. In the next scene, Monk is being disciplined in an office by his white colleagues. Refusing to erase the N-word is not his first offense. He had previously insulted a German student by asking him if his family were Nazis. Monk’s colleagues demand that he take time off.
I really liked these two scenes. So often in video of recent protests, from BLM to pro-Hamas rallies, fat white girls are disproportionately represented among the aggrieved. I’m a fat white woman myself and I know it’s hard to be a member of a group that gets little respect and a lot of mockery. I suspect that suppressed rage, pain, personal disappointment and loneliness drives these girls to glom on to grievance movements where they can capitalize on their own hurt in a way that receives wider respect.
A young white student insisting that an accomplished black professor surrender his authority to her and to perform in a way that meets her demands also felt very real. As a former teacher, I can say that events like this happen every day. Some of them have received national attention. In 2020, USC Professor Greg Patton was explaining vocal disfluencies like “um.” In Chinese, people don’t say “um,” they say “nega.” Some students felt that the Chinese word “nega” sounded too much like the N-word and therefore “nega” should not be said in a language class. These students complained and Patton was suspended.
The rest of the movie does not live up to the opening scenes, nor does it live up to the promise of the trailer. I bought a ticket to see an incisive social satire on a very hot topic. Instead what I got was a boring, undercooked domestic melodrama.
After being shown the door by his colleagues in California, Monk travels to his childhood home in Boston. His mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) lives in a mansion with Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), a plump and smiling live-in domestic servant. Monk’s father shot himself to death in the family beach house several years before. He had had multiple affairs while married to Agnes. Agnes knew about these affairs but she stuck by her husband because he was a lonely genius, as she puts it. Agnes is succumbing to Alzheimer’s.
Monk’s sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a divorced abortionist. She complains that she has to pass through a metal detector in order to enter her workplace. Passing through a metal detector to enter her workplace is no doubt easier than leaving that facility as medical waste, which is the fate of her patients. One day while Monk and Lisa are eating lunch, Lisa lurches forward dramatically. She has had a fatal heart attack. Later Monk is shown tossing her ashes into a seaweed-choked body of water. Monk reads a statement that Lisa wrote about her own death. She wanted to die, she says, under Idris Elba’s thrusting loins.
Monk’s brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) is a gay, divorced plastic surgeon and coke addict. Cliff refers to his ex-wife as his “beard.” Cliff cavorts with scantily clad gay men and snorts coke.
One day Monk looks across the street and sees a woman failing at carrying groceries the few steps from her car into her house. Monk helps this incompetent woman, who is named Coraline (Erika Alexander). Later, Monk is shown tying his tie in a bedroom. Coraline enters the bedroom in a bathrobe. From these clues, it’s clear that they have just had sex.
Movies have frequently used a woman’s inability to transport groceries successfully as an erotic lure. In the 1971 film Summer of 42, a new widow rewards a teenage boy with sex after he helps her to carry Rice Krispies into her house. Marsha Mason also can’t carry groceries in 1977’s The Goodbye Girl; she ends up with Richard Dreyfuss. I have managed to carry groceries for several decades now without ever dropping them or needing a man to rush forward and rescue me from my own ineptitude at this basic task. Now I know why I will die a spinster.
The mother with Alzheimer’s, the sister who drops dead while eating lunch with her brother, the gay man snorting coke. Any of these characteristics could have been traded with another character and it would have made no difference to the film. Monk’s mother could have been a serial adulterer and could have shot herself, rather than his father. This would have made no difference. Monk’s brother, rather than his sister, could have been an abortionist; the sister, rather than the brother, could have been gay. This switch would have made no difference. To quote Truman Capote, all of this is not writing, it’s typing. None of these soap opera details are fleshed out in any way that brings the details to life.
I and I suspect many others have lived through many of experiences stuck on to these characters as if the characteristics were post-it notes adhered to a bulletin board. I lost a parent to Alzheimer’s. One of my siblings did die right in front of me. I did eulogize that sibling. There was nothing on screen – nothing – that vivified these experiences and created any verisimilitude. There was no art. There was just typing and actors going through the motions, as if at a rehearsal, trying to figure out who their characters were, what their motivations were, and why they were doing what they were doing.
None of these subplots bore any relationship to the movie’s main point – that powerful whites oppress powerless blacks by promoting a false image of black underclass life. In the theater where I saw American Fiction, a group of middle-aged black women sat in the row in front of me. During the opening scene of Monk teaching his college class and being harangued by the fat white girl, the ladies sitting in front of me laughed uproariously. As soon as the movie switched over to the domestic melodrama of Monk’s family, a couple of the women began scrolling through texts on their phones. The theater, which had previously rung with laughter, went silent, the silence of boredom, the silence of an audience waiting for the movie to get back on track. Monk’s siblings, his mother, and his sexual relationship with the woman who can’t carry groceries could easily have been deleted from the film and that deletion would not have changed any detail of the scenes relating to Monk’s literary career.
Why, then, does a movie that advertises itself as a fearless critique of media images of black people take this turn into lifeless domestic melodrama? One suspects that author Percival Everett and director and scriptwriter Cord Jefferson want to say, loud and clear, “Black people are not all underclass thugs and unwed mothers. Some live in mansions and have white-collar careers. Their families face the same issues your family faces.”
That’s a fine message. It’s not a new message. Back in 1968, Diahann Carroll starred as TV’s Julia. Julia was a nurse, she was black, and she was a refined, educated woman who spoke Standard English. The Jeffersons, which began in 1975, and was one of the longest-running sitcoms, depicted an economically successful and happily married black couple. The hugely successful Cosby Show, 1984-92, depicted a well-to-do black family. Waiting to Exhale, both the 1992 novel and the 1995 film, both very successful, depicted wealthy and beautiful black women and the men they love.
So, no. American Fiction is not breaking new ground. There are good reasons why a movie about the fandom of black thuggery is pertinent in 2024, even decades after the above cultural advances, but American Fiction never explores those reasons, or even seems aware that they exist.
Cord Jefferson presents domestic melodrama that “explains” to an audience that really doesn’t need this explanation that black people are human, just like white people. But the domestic melodrama is utterly flat. Again, Monk’s sister suffers a fatal heart attack right in front of him. He later must eulogize her. Monk is never shown mourning his sister’s death. Reading the eulogy she wrote for herself, he makes a shallow joke about how she wanted to die while having sex with Idris Elba. Yes, people make wise cracks after a death, but they also mourn. The sister is dispatched and she’s never mentioned again. That’s very much not what losing a sibling was like for me, and I’ve lost four.
There’s one well-rounded – no pun intended – character in the domestic melodrama portion of American Fiction. Myra Lucretia Taylor plays Lorraine, the family’s long-serving live-in domestic. Lorraine is loyal, loving, supportive, and uncomplaining. She loves the family she serves. She is familiar with their tastes and works hard to cater to them, knowing, for example, that her mistress prefers white bread to whole wheat, and wants the crusts cut off of her sandwiches. Lorraine is so deferential that even though she is asked not to, she insists on referring to Monk as “Mr.” Lorraine appears to have no personal life. She’s in her sixties, and is single. And she’s fat. Her character doesn’t even have a last name. Other characters, onscreen for much less time than Lorraine, have last names.
Did no one connected to American Fiction, a movie about stereotypes of blacks in media, not notice that Lorraine is a version of the Mammy stereotype? Hattie McDaniel played Mammy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. She won an Academy Award. The NAACP criticized McDaniel for playing maids. McDaniel reportedly replied that she’d rather play a maid than be one. In 2021, Aunt-Jemima-brand pancake mix and syrup retired its image and name because of protests against the Mammy stereotype.
I wonder if American Fiction’s creators, and those lauding the film as a fearless assault on stereotyping, are blind to Lorraine’s smiling, happy, fat subservience because Lorraine works for a black family rather than a white one. If so, what we have here is just another example of leftists privileging race over class. If you are black and rich, you can get an Affirmative Action admit to Harvard, over a poor white applicant. That’s race over class. If you are a happy, smiling servant, who subsumes your own personal life to the happiness of those you serve, that’s okay, if you serve a black family.
Myra Lucretia Taylor is an appealing, charismatic actress. I believed her as Lorraine in a way that I did not believe Tracee Ellis Ross as Lisa, Monk’s sister, or Sterling K. Brown as Monk’s brother. If I could afford a domestic servant, I’d be thrilled if I could find someone as apparently kind, loving, and dedicated as Lorraine. It’s the film’s hypocritical blindness to nuances of class, rather than Taylor’s performance, or the character as written, that irks.
Lorraine appealed to me partly because she is the only character in the film who cared about anyone except herself. In a December 1, 2023 FrontPage Magazine review of the film Rustin, I raved about Jeffrey Wright’s performance as Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Wright is onscreen for only minutes, but he is superb as a ruthless, serpentine, power player. Rustin made me want to see more Wright. Alas, more Jeffrey Wright didn’t work at all for me in American Fiction. Wright’s character, Monk, is an alienating jerk. He’s cold, angry, abrasive, and self-sabotaging. He seems to be annoyed by everything and everyone. Wright’s performance is all too believable. Just like the character he plays, Wright never connected to this audience member in a way that felt at all warm or human. It seemed pretty clear that Monk didn’t care about others, including me, and I returned the favor and didn’t care about him.
We tend to see other characters as Monk sees them, so everyone other than Monk comes across as ridiculous, like the white cultural arbiters who hand him millions, fame, and prestige; alternatively, other characters are just another burden Monk has to shoulder, like his demented mother. Monk, of course, eventually alienates even the woman whose groceries he carried and who became his lover. He picks a fight with her over dinner at her home and she orders him to leave. They don’t reconcile. Given how irritating Monk is, how shallow her characterization was, and how under-motivated their relationship was, I didn’t feel for either one of them.
American Fiction did not work for me aesthetically. How about its politics? Do I agree that shallow, ridiculous, venal white people determine how blacks are portrayed in media? More importantly, does anyone believe that nonsense, including the people who made this movie?
Again, when I saw the trailer, that included a beautiful, Standard-English-speaking black woman assuming Ebonics to recite an episode from her well-received novel about the black underclass, hope flared in my naïve heart. I thought that American Fiction might take on some tough topics.
Maybe American Fiction would address why bourgeois blacks, who grew up in comfortable homes, the children of white-collar parents, would choose to depict themselves as members of, or spokespersons for, the underclass. I’m talking about people like Dave Chappelle, Beyonce Knowles, Jeremiah Wright, and Ibram X. Kendi. Jeffrey Wright, star of American Fiction, is the son of a lawyer. Wright attended the same prep school as Al Gore, Thomas Kean, and Prince Feisal bin Al Hussein. Wright played lacrosse at St. Albans. Wright went on to Amherst and NYU, and has had a successful acting career since 1990. Tracee Ellis Ross plays Monk’s sister Lisa. Ross’ real name is Tracee Joy Silberstein. Her father is music executive Robert Ellis Silberstein. Her mother is Diana Ross, one of the wealthiest and most successful recording artists of all time. I watched YouTube interviews in which Wright and Ross recounted how much they have suffered because they are black. Any internal or external pressure such fortunate people feel to assume victim identity in order to display their bona fides as authentically black people might have been apt fodder for satire in the film that American Fiction wanted to be, but never became.
Every white person in American Fiction is a ridiculous, racist caricature. There’s nothing wrong with ridiculous caricatures in a comedy. But American Fiction’s selective outrage is not just cowardly, it’s inaccurate. Yes, plenty of white cultural arbiters do demand products that depict blacks as thugs and welfare queens. But there are also plenty of black consumers who demand products that depict blacks as thugs and welfare queens. And there are blacks in real life who feel themselves to be inauthentic if they do not participate in underclass lifestyles. The black schoolchild who is harassed by his peers if he does well in school, who is mocked and ostracized for “acting white,” is all too real.
With other New Jerseyans I cherish Newark’s own Whitney Houston. Houston was as beautiful as an angel and her voice was peerless. Houston grew up in a loving, church-going, two-parent family. Her mother was a successful singer. Houston was related to Dionne Warwick, Leontyne Price, and Jeremiah Burke Sanderson, a nineteenth century abolitionist. Darlene Love and Aretha Franklin were honorary family members. When she was at the height of her fame, some blacks bashed Whitney Houston as “not black enough.” She starred in The Bodyguard. Her romantic lead was Kevin Costner, a white man. Houston sang the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. Some blacks did not appreciate Houston singing the national anthem. Houston had a huge hit with “I Will Always Love You,” a song written and first performed by a white Southerner.
Al Sharpton mocked Whitney Houston as “Whitey Houston.” Writer and professor Trey Ellis damned Houston as an “assimilationist nightmare,” a “neutered mutation.” Houston was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards. Houston was “devastated;” she “never recovered” and the event contributed to her ultimate demise. Some black radio stations would not play her material. “Sometimes it gets down to ‘You’re not black enough for them. You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them,'” Houston said. An Arista executive said, “For the black audience, the perspective in the community was that Whitney had sold out.” At the Soul Train event where she was booed, Houston met Bobby Brown, “the epitome of a virile, street-credible black man.” She married him, did drugs with him, and was abused by him. Contrary to rumors, it wasn’t Bobby Brown, though, who introduced Whitney to the cocaine that would eventually kill her. It was her own brother, Michael.
Ta-Nehisi Coates in a 2018 piece in The Atlantic insisted that black artists can never be independent, can never be just themselves, because their talent is community property, and is produced by black suffering, a communal birthright. “The gift can never wholly belong to a singular artist, free of expectation and scrutiny, because the gift is no more solely theirs than the suffering that produced it.” This is a horribly oppressive, imprisoning burden. It isn’t imposed by ridiculous whites. It’s imposed by blacks on each other.
Nor is this imposition anything new. Back when Julia was broadcast, it was criticized for not being black enough. Diahann Carroll, the show’s star, said “We are presenting the white Negro. And he [sic!] has very little Negro-ness.” A contemporary critic wrote that Julia was “a far, far cry from the bitter realities of Negro life in the urban ghetto.” A black viewer wrote to say that the show’s producers were no better than “slave owners.” A spokesperson for the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture said that Julia “was a sanitized view of African-American life … and didn’t really put a clear lens on what integration really meant, or what the African-American experience truly was.” Criticism was so harsh that Carroll was twice hospitalized for stress. “I’m falling apart,” she said. Julia “provided a false narrative that suggested African-Americans aspiring to the middle class just needed to work hard and find opportunities.” That last criticism is rather ironic given how the show affected at least one viewer. “Debra Barksdale, a sharecropper’s daughter now serving as associate dean of academic affairs at Virginian Commonwealth University School of Nursing, credits the series with inspiring her work. In her office sits Mattel’s Julia doll.”
As part of her criticism of Julia, Smithsonian Museums Correspondent Alice George complains that other blacks on TV in the 1960s were not realistic. Bill Cosby, on I Spy, and Greg Morris, on Mission Impossible, played spies. Nichelle Nichols, on Star Trek, played the communications officer on a space ship. These three black TV stars were not “realistic.” George’s criticism would be funny were it not so blind. What else was on TV in the 1960s? I Dream of Jeannie, about a sexy genie, Bewitched, about a sexy suburban witch, My Mother the Car, just as the title says, My Favorite Martian, about a suburban Martian, Mr. Ed about a talking horse, Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies, shows that made a mockery of rural life and white, rural, Southern people. In other words, TV in the 1960s was not realistic. It was not meant to be. It was escapist entertainment. Greg Morris, Diahann Carroll, Nichelle Nichols, Barbara Eden, and Eva Gabor, black and white, all played unrealistic characters.
There’s an aborted scene in American Fiction that feels as if it was snuck into the movie by unseen hands. Monk and Sintara Golden find themselves alone together in a conference room. Monk, in his unattractive, passive aggressive way, confronts Golden about her book We’s Lives In Da Ghetto. He accuses Golden of pandering to the worst impulses of white cultural arbiters and white audiences. Golden asks, would he say the same thing about Bret Easton Ellis or Charles Bukowski? That question is excellent. Had it been pursued, American Fiction would have been a better film.
Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Less Than Zero, describes the decadent and degraded lives of rich, white college students. There is extensive drug use, orgies, sex slavery, voyeurism, prostitution, and death. Charles Bukowski wrote about sex, violence, crime, and alcoholism. Both of these authors are celebrated. If white authors can write about disgusting and criminal white people, why can’t black authors write about underclass black people, Golden asks?
American Fiction doesn’t mention many authors it might have mentioned. James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance, and the 1972 film of the same name, is part of a long tradition of depicting poor, Southern whites as criminal freaks. J. D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, and the 2020 film of the same name, Hillbilly Elegy, are unflattering depictions of white Appalachian culture. Vance’s discussion of white generational poverty, white family dysfunction, abuse, and breakdown, white drug dependency, white welfare recipients, white shirking of work, and white learned helplessness, and his mostly conservative proposals to solve these problems, were all treated seriously in the mainstream press and by powerful voices in politics and culture. Hillbilly Elegy’s success helped propel J. D. Vance to his current position as a United States senator. In American Fiction, none of this ever happened. It’s only blacks who live underclass lives, who are stereotyped in media, and who present a challenge to would-be social engineers.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.