'American Fiction' - A Masterpiece of Film

"American Fiction" via IMDb.

You’re going to want to remember the name Cord Jefferson. “American Fiction” (MGM/Orion), Jefferson’s feature film debut as writer and director, sizzles with hot button issues, all presented in often hilarious, and sometimes touching, moments. Based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” the subject is incredibly timely, made even more relevant due to the performances Jefferson elicits from his outstanding cast.

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (the fantastic Jeffrey Wright in a long overdue lead role), a literature professor at a California university, is also a talented writer who hasn’t published in years. Forced to take time off following a run-in with a triggered student, Monk returns to his native Boston, where his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) and sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) still live. Lisa, who works at a family planning clinic, is convinced that Agnes has Alzheimer’s.

While in Boston, Monk meets with his agent Arthur (John Ortiz), who breaks the news that nine publishers have passed on his latest book. Making matters worse is that while attending a book festival, Monk encounters Sintara (Issa Rae), whose debut novel “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto,” written entirely in dialect, is a resounding hit.

Adding insult to injury, Lisa dies suddenly of a heart attack while with Monk. Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), the third sibling, arrives to attend the memorial service at the Ellison’s beach house, along with Monk, Agnes, and longtime housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor). 

Cliff, a plastic surgeon living in Arizona, arrives with his own set of issues. His marriage has ended after his wife caught him in bed with a man, and his kids aren’t talking to him. “American Fiction” does a superb job of depicting the “gay adolescence” some gay men who come out later in life experience.

But things are about to change for Monk. First, he meets Coraline (Erika Alexander), a lawyer who lives in the house across the street from his family’s beach house. They hit it off.

Then, following Agnes’ official Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and faced with a whole new set of expenses, Monk sits down in front of his laptop and begins to write a new novel under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. He sends the manuscript, written in dialect, to Arthur who is initially hesitant to share it with publishers. However, when he does, something incredible occurs. Caught up in the zeitgeist, the press, represented by Paula (Miriam Shor), offers Stagg $750k for the book.

What follows is a series of wacky, but not entirely improbable situations, with which Monk is forced to deal. “American Fiction” does a fantastic job of lampooning higher education, the publishing and literary worlds, cultural appropriation, family dynamics, and as previously noted, the portrayal of coming out later in life. Every performance feels thoroughly genuine, making “American Fiction” feel like an entertaining piece of non-fiction.

Rating: A-


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