‘American Fiction’ Review: Hilarious and Touching Satire of White Liberal Guilt

American Fiction
Amazon MGM Studios

Dr. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (a beyond superb Jeffrey Wright) is a fifty-ish literature professor and novelist dealing, like many of us of a certain age, with a world he no longer understands.

America Fiction opens in a classroom. Within the context of the day’s lesson, Monk has written the word “ni**er” on the board. A white girl with dyed hair complains. She finds it inappropriate. She finds it offensive.

“With all due respect, Brittany,” Monk (a black man) replies, ”I got over it, I’m pretty sure you can too.”

Monk is suspended.

Then Monk learns a last-chance publisher passed on his latest novel. They liked the book, he’s told, but they want black novels. The fact Monk is black and wrote a novel is not the point.

Then Monk participates on a book festival panel where only a handful of people show up.

Then Monk witnesses something that horrifies and disgusts him. Elsewhere at the festival, a black, sophisticated academic named Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) is treated like a rock star for her best-selling novel We’s Lives In Da Ghetto. The excerpt she reads sounds like this: “Girl, Iz be axing you to go visit your brother in da prison.”

Then Monk learns his mother (Leslie Uggums) has Alzheimer’s and will need expensive care. Neither he nor his siblings have any money.

American Fiction is not about woke or white guilt or race. American Fiction is about people. And American Fiction is how it’s done.

American Fiction is not that Jonah Hill disaster, You People.

Remember You People, which also came out last year? Yeah, no one else does either. You People wanted to be the first movie to comedically explore an outsider navigating woke culture, but that’s all it was about. As I wrote in my review:

Apparently, we can’t have comedies about people anymore. Everything has to be political. The human experience and the human condition is no longer appropriate. The Message not only takes precedence but the human experience is shoved aside to create one-dimensional Message Carriers instead of flesh-and-blood characters.

The polar opposite is true with American Fiction, which has truckloads to say about woke culture and how white guilt manifests as its own form of racism, but you never feel the lecture because it’s all coming through real, living and breathing characters you care about and relate to.

An example…

In lesser hands, the following would be a real eye-roll moment…

Monk’s outside on the phone with his literary agent Arthur (John Ortiz) explaining that he wants to be a “writer” and not a “black writer.”

“I don’t really believe in race,” Monk says while hailing a cab.

“Yeah,” says Arthur as the cab slows. “The problem is that everyone else does.” Then the cab accelerates past Monk to pick up a white guy.

Making that moment about the character of Monk and his academic insularity instead of a heavy-handed statement about society—it’s a spoonful of sugar with the medicine. The movie doesn’t come to a stop with a record scratch to teach us a lesson. Instead, that moment is about Monk, about Monk’s experience and the never-ending indignities he sighs through in a world that no longer makes sense.

First-time director Cord Jefferson (who won a well-deserved Oscar for his adapted screenplay) has elevated the “the black guy cab trope” into a moment everyone can relate to—where our values crash into the reality of a world indifferent to those values.

That’s how it’s done.

Better still, Monk learns nothing from that moment. A little later, he’s creating an uproar in a bookstore, moving his novels out of the black section and into the main section. How wonderfully human.

Another example…

Any other movie would’ve left Sintara Golden and her reading of We’s Lives In Da Ghetto as comic relief. American Fiction is smarter than that, and not only allows us to get to know her but allows her to make an intelligent case for why she wrote it. Like all great movies, we’re not told if she’s right or wrong. We are left to think about it.

Then there’s scene stealer Sterling K. Brown as Cliff, Monk’s disaster of a brother who just blew up his family after being caught in bed with another man. Brown once again reminds us that he is one of the most under-appreciated actors working today. Cliff is a dynamic and human character defined by contradictions—his virtues and flaws, instead of his sexuality. Cliff is hilarious and pathetic, vulnerable and selfish, prideful and insecure—he’s a whole man and not reduced to a symbol that demands we accept homosexuality but that we accept people for who they are as opposed to who we want them to be.

Without giving anything away, we’re also gifted with a marvelous scene with The Mighty Keith David.

American Fiction is not only entertaining, hilarious, and touching, it has something to say—a lot to say— but does so by uniting us through our shared human experience. Because they are not defined by their identity, there is no character here you cannot identify with.

Between this and The Holdovers, there were two ponies in last year’s pile of Hollywood shit.

American Fiction is currently streaming for free if you subscribe to Amazon Prime.

John Nolte’s first and last novel, Borrowed Time, is winning five-star raves from everyday readers. You can read an excerpt here and an in-depth review here. Also available in hardcover and on Kindle and Audiobook


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