June 20, 2024

AMERICAN FICTION and the Brilliant Balancing Act

2023 / 117 min
Review by Pepper the Poopy😸

Before finally seeing it, I thought I knew what American Fiction was about…a brilliant African-American writer whose books are respected but don’t sell particularly well. Out of frustration, he cranks out a pandering “street” novel under a pseudonym. He intended it as a joke, but not only is Monk offered a huge advance, the book becomes a sensation, embraced by pretentious readers & critics (mostly white people) who declare the non-existent author an important new black voice.

Brilliantly played by Jeffrey Wright, Monk is both shocked and dismayed that his pseudonym, Stagg R. Leigh, is not only popular, but represents what society expects black authors to write about - oppression, poverty, crime, drugs, murder - in stereotypical dialect that contrasts his own literary sensibilities. When offered a movie deal, Monk is forced to adopt Stagg’s criminal persona. Worse yet, the book is selected for a potential literary prize, of which he’s one of the judges. 

Monk shows Coraline where the bodies are hidden.
But it turns out I was only half correct. The book’s success makes him financially able to care for his ailing mother (Leslie Uggams), suffering from Alzheimer’s. This is the actual crux of the narrative. Returning home, Monk is also forced to deal with the sudden death of his sister, Lisa (Traci Ellis Ross), who’d been taking care of their mother until now. He also reunites with semi-estranged brother cliff (Sterling K. Brown), recently cleaned out by a divorce after coming out as gay. 

Monk also begins a relationship with a divorced lawyer, Coraline (Erika Alexander), but is unaccustomed to opening up to others. Much of the story is a character study of Monk, who has distanced himself from the family over the years and now feels overwhelmed. These somber narrative threads sharply contrast the satiric humor of his sudden book success. American Fiction balances both elements extremely well, resulting in a wonderfully written film that’s emotionally affecting and frequently hilarious. 

More importantly, it’s unpredictable, never pandering to audience expectations with familiar outcomes. This is especially true during the climax and denouement, which I didn’t see coming. I personally thought it ended brilliantly, while others might find it maddening. Punctuated by excellent performances from the entire cast, American Fiction is a unique film that deserved its five Oscar nominations (and winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay).

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