American Fiction Review: Cord Jefferson Delivers A Funny & Insightful Feature Debut [TIFF]

TORONTO – “American Fiction,” the directorial debut from Cord Jefferson, is genuinely a very, very funny movie. And that’s hyperbole on our part. It’s also a perceptive look at how the mainstream media only has room for a select number of African-American stories. In fact, going by the movie’s spot-on premise, this movie would not be one of them. It’s not an easy endeavor to pull off, but considering Jefferson’s resume, we aren’t surprised he has.

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Debuting at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and winner of the festival’s coveted People’s Choice Award, no less, “Fiction” is an adaption of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, “Erasure.” And let’s just say its subject matter is potentially even more relevant today than it was two decades ago (and, trust, it was on the money back then too).

Our hero is Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a celebrated literature professor at a West Coast University. The movie opens with Monk in the middle of a lecture. A white female student is aghast that Monk, who is Black, would use the “n” word in context about a specific written work. Ellison smartly makes his point that if anyone can use that word, it’s him, and she storms out of the room in frustration. It’s funny and observational and a foreshadowing of what is to come (did we say the movie was funny yet?).

Outside of his scholarly commitments, Monk is going through something of an existential writing crisis. Despite success earlier in his career, his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), can’t find a buyer for Monk’s latest submission. The problem? It just isn’t “Black” enough. This angers Monk, who doesn’t understand why he can’t write about any subject matter. Why does it always have to be an African-American narrative? He’s also shocked by the success of the overly stereotypical novel “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto” by Juanita Mae Jenkins (Issa Rae), who, from what he can tell, with her Ivy League education and publishing house background, is a far cry from the novel’s destitute subject matter. At one point, he vents, “Black people in poverty, black people rapping, black people as slaves, black people overcoming racism in the 1950s, black people being murdered by the police, soaring narratives about black folks in awful situations who nonetheless find ways to maintain their dignity. It’s like they can’t envision us out from under somebody’s boot.” And yet, Jenkins’ novel is a critical and chart-topping smash.

With his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) struggling with the onset of dementia, Monk is forced to return home to Boston to help in handling the transition. He hasn’t been back very often, and his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), immediately reads him for it. She’s been the sole caretaker while Monk and their brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), live their lives on the other side of the country. And, as much as the film is about Monk’s professional career, it’s also a spotlight on the inevitable life changes that he (and many of us) attempt to avoid confronting.

Frustrated with yet another publisher rejection, Monk decides to sit down and write a parody of an inner-city set novel with every Black cliche he can think of. Up until this point, Jefferson has pretty much directed “Fiction” in a conservative, straight-on manner (sometimes to its detriment), but he thankfully mixes it up here when the movie needs a little jolt. As Monk types away on his laptop, his two main characters, Van Go Jenkins (Okieriete Onaodowan) and Willy the Wonder (Keith David), are having a melodramatic showdown about something to do with Willy’s disappointment over Van Go’s criminal activities. They play out this stereotypical showdown in Monk’s office, often interacting with him, as our hero finds some creative release in putting this to the page.

Titled “My Pafology,” Monk asks Arthur to submit it under a pseudonym to all the publishers who rejected him. Arthur thinks it’s a terrible idea but goes along with his client’s request anyway. They even come up with a backstory for the fictional author, saying his identity needs to be kept secret because he’s on the run from the law. Predictably to anyone watching, but much to Monk’s horror, the book industry goes nuts for it. And he soon has an almost million-dollar offer for the rights. With his family struggling to figure out how to pay for his mother’s care, he is forced to sell the book and go on a very strange and clandestine journey as his unexpected alias.

And yet, Jefferson is juggling so much more with this movie. There is the romance with Monk’s neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander) the movie might not need, Cliff’s late-in-life coming out as gay adventure, and, arriving just in time to put the nail in Hollywood’s coffin (the publishing industry gets its just deserts pretty quickly), Wiley Valdespino (Adam Brody), an agent turned producer with the self-awareness of a doorknob (we’re assuming he’s a former agent because Brody nails the type so well).

Throughout all of these threads, Jefferson smartly conveys Monk’s points regarding the stereotypes continually perpetuated in the mainstream media. But Jefferson isn’t afraid to throw Monk’s assumptions back at him. When Monk and Jenkins eventually meet in person, he makes sure to give Jenkins’ character a chance to flip the script. Maybe the characters in her book are relatable to some readers; maybe he doesn’t know what she’s researched or what she’s experienced. There is some room for nuance on this subject matter, even if Monk’s own hit “parody” book is self-admitted crap.

Jefferson is assisted by a stellar cast beginning with Wright, who gets the chance to topline a theatrical movie for the first time since Basquiat” almost 30 years ago (an absolutely embarrassing realization for the industry). Wright nails the delicate line of maintaining Monk’s incredulous dismay at the events around him while also juggling physical comedy (this movie has everything) and grounded, dramatic moments. Ellis is an absolute light with a rare semi-dramatic role (the movie could have used a bit more of her) and Alexander is captivating as a character that is a little too much of a respite for Monk’s increasingly tumultuous life. Ortiz practically steals every scene he’s in, and Brown gives Cliff a needed depth that we’re not sure was completely on the page.

What is frustrating about “Fiction” is despite how smart and hilarious it is, it often feels overstuffed with too much narrative. We’re all for seeing examples of unfamiliar LGBTQ+ characters on screen, but Cliff’s storyline, in particular, feels unnecessary to Monk’s journey (although we’d love to see it in the context of its own movie). I mean, Monk has enough on his plate as it is. Moreover, the aforementioned romance is absolutely an example of Black romance we don’t see on screen, but it doesn’t add up to much in the larger scope of the movie. Yes, we hate to say it, but “American Fiction” could have benefited from…an editor. But the end result is often so insightful and entertaining that it makes you immediately wonder what subject matter Jefferson will tackle next. [B]

“American Fiction” will be released on Nov. 3.

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