A Satirical Bestseller Unveils the Complex Layers of African American Life
Writer / Andy Ray
During the 1960s, Sidney Poitier was the quintessential black actor. His noble and upstanding characters presented African Americans in a positive and encouraging light – exactly as white moviegoers wanted to see. But in the early ‘70s, things changed. A serious of so-called blaxploitation pictures displayed what many young, black filmmakers considered the “real” depiction of the African American existence – complete with gunfire, drugs, pimps, prostitutes, and an excessive dose of marital infidelity. Think “Shaft,” “Superfly,” and “Cleopatra Jones.” White audiences and critics ate it up. These new black films were initially considered brilliant, although most of them look hopelessly dated today.
A similar narrative plays out in Cord Jefferson’s first feature, “American Fiction,” in which Jeffrey Wright plays Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, a serious author and professor who scores a best seller when he jokingly writes a “black” novel under the pen name Stagg O. Lee (coined from the old Lloyd Price song “Stagger Lee,” although most viewers won’t make the connection). Written in “street” dialect, Ellison/Lee’s novel contains sex, drugs, and guns. The police are presented as the enemy of the modern American black man. And America goes crazy for it.
Monk is torn. He needs the money to afford an institutional living arrangement for his mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. She’s played by veteran singer and actress Leslie Uggams – her best role in years. But Monk also believes he’s compromised his own standards as an author. He simply can’t believe people want to read a novel he considers junk, even though he wrote it. Next thing we know, a Hollywood studio offers millions of dollars for the movie rights. Overnight, Stagg O. Lee becomes a sensation.
You may have seen the trailer for “American Fiction,” and it would appear to be a smart, well-written comedy. Given the premise, that was my assumption as well. And it is funny. But “American Fiction” is so much more. Adapted by Jefferson from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” this film is a warmhearted story about a family.
During a leave of absence from his university position in Los Angeles, Monk returns to his hometown of Boston – for the first time in quite a few years – to reunite with his mother, and his sister Lisa, a surgeon (Tracee Ellis Ross). Also visiting is Cliff, Monk’s gay brother from Tuscon. He’s played by Sterling K. Brown. During Monk’s long visit, he begins a relationship with an attractive neighbor, an attorney named Coraline, played by Erika Alexander, in the film’s best supporting performance. The family’s longtime cook and housekeeper Lorraine has recently begun a relationship with a local police officer whom the Ellisons have known for years.
At its heart, “American Fiction” is a story about an American family going through a difficult period, with the mother’s worsening mental state. There is also talk of the late Mr. Ellison’s numerous affairs. Not all is well with the Ellisons, but this is obviously a family with a foundation built on love. It’s such a refreshing and exhilarating story that the initial premise of Monk’s “black” novel is relegated to second-tier status. We could almost do without that story line altogether! Imagine that – a film in which the plot is less important than the interesting array of characters.
And I believe that’s exactly the point of “American Fiction.” Much as the Monk character sells his soul to produce a major best seller, we somewhat sell our souls as viewers to care so much about that story line in the first place – when the real story is that of the Ellison family. This instantly rivals Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” (another heartwarming story in which the plot wasn’t as important as the character development) as the best film so far this year.
My only complaint is the ending. While a certain part of me eagerly anticipated the “big reveal” – in which Monk tells the world he is, in fact, Stagg O. Lee (a la Dustin Hoffman’s big reveal in “Tootsie”) – that wouldn’t feel right in a film that’s not nearly as much a comedy as represented by the trailer. But Jefferson doesn’t know how to end the story either. He offers three potential endings, none of which is entirely satisfying.
When Monk begins working with the Hollywood executives to adapt his novel to the screen, we are led to believe that the film we are watching, “American Fiction,” is the motion picture eventually produced – rather than the actual novel itself. That makes for a somewhat clumsy conclusion.
But save for that complaint, I rank “American Fiction” as one of the best films of the year, and of this decade. Sure to be a crowd pleaser, we need to remember the name Cord Jefferson. He could be one of the great new directors to come out of the 2020s.