|American Fiction asks the question “What is Black art?” Is it a novel or a film made by a Black person or does it have to be about an experience unique to their culture in such a way that White people can praise it to absolve their guilt? It asks this question by telling a tale that is both truthful in an everyday every American kind of way and a part that is pure fiction that offers entertaining reflection.
Directed by: Cord Jefferson
Screenplay by: Cord Jefferson
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, and Sterling K. Brown
Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a literature professor and writer. Or, more accurately, was a literature professor until he was placed on leave for writing the N-word on the board and a White student complained and basically got him fired. So now he turns to his writing career, which is completely stalled with three unsuccessful novels and a fourth one that has been rejected by every publisher for “not being Black enough.”
He's depressed but in a way where he tries to hide it, makes a few jokes about his weight, and just tries to keep going with life. It’s a very lived-in performance by Jeffrey Wright; not flashy, not larger-than-life, but a performance that says “I got you. Life is hard for everybody but it is possible to get through.” Life keeps finding ways to make his life just a little bit harder. He has temporarily moved back home to take a break from the LA life that has kicked him to the curb to find out that his mother has developed dementia and his formerly successful siblings have fallen on hard times themselves with both his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) and brother (Sterling K. Brown) going through their own divorces and financial struggles.
On one hand, this is a story about a middle-aged man who’s facing a stalled career with an uncertain future and family problems arising from an otherwise stable position. This side of the story is truthful in a way that represents reality for so many people. But when Thelonious tries to write a novel with those types of experiences, he gets rejected, not because it’s not well written but because it doesn’t echo the Black experiences, as if it’s not also their reality.
A frustrated Thelonious then gives way to the second half of the movie. A comedy about throwing the “Black experience” back in their face. In one night, he writes a terrible novel. It has awful grammar and spelling and incorporates every Black stereotype known to man: the dead-beat dad, the alcoholic, the gang-member, the ex-convict, all of whom have guns, and a teenager gets killed by the police. By presenting all these stereotypes as ridiculous, this is the comedy side of the movie. Put a pseudonym on it, make up a completely fake back story for the author’s life and you will either have a novel that should have been thrown out from the very first slush pile, or the most popular award-winning book of the year.
Half comedy, half drama, American Fiction questions what is American fiction by pairing a larger-than-life comedy about a made up reality with a drama about life that is very much everyone’s reality.