American Fiction is a winner. It’s sharp, sometimes dark, and often witty satire that will make you laugh, cringe, laugh, cringe, and laugh again. Or laugh and cringe at the same time- especially when you’re not sure if it’s appropriate to laugh. The film is meant to be funny and provocative as it explores themes around Black identity, white ignorance, and the pop culture abyss. American Fiction is based on the 2001 novel “Ensure” by Percival Everett, a book that struck a chord with first-time director Cord Jefferson who said he could hear the voice of actor Jefferey Wright (“Westworld”) in his head while reading the story of an English lit professor and frustrated author whose writings are rejected for not being “black enough.” Lucky for Jefferson, and the rest of us, Wright was available and willing to embody the flawed yet sympathetic character of Thelonius “Monk” Ellison.
Monk is the type of guy who is too smart and stubborn for his own good. His cynical nature impacts his relationships with students, colleagues, friends, and family, including his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), and mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams). When a shift in family dynamics brings Monk “home,” he is forced to confront a variety of personal and professional challenges; all the while, he’s growing increasingly annoyed that his writings can’t compete in a marketplace fixated on “black” entertainment filled with stereotypical tropes.
To make a point, Monk decides to write an outlandish parody of African American literature, rife with every stereotype and cliche in the book (so to speak)– gangs, violence, teen pregnancy, ghetto talk. He drafts “My Pafology” (working title!) under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, expecting it to appall and repel the literary establishment. Instead, it takes off like wildfire. And soon Hollywood is calling. Monk is pushed to the brink of hypocrisy and must decide if he’s willing and able to sacrifice his ideals for much-needed cash. If you think you know where it’s going, you’re probably wrong. Rest assured, it’s quite brilliant.
American Fiction opens in select theaters December 15 and additional cities on December 22 and in January.