3 Arts Entertainment, 2023
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Thought-provoking movies and TV shows
“Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, 12 Years a Slave, Roots, all have impacted me in profound and beautiful ways. They are parts of our story; they are not the totality of our story. So the idea sometimes if we tell these stories over and over again, the mainstream public thinks that that’s the totality of who we are. So when they meet somebody that doesn’t fit into that particular box, they tend to say ‘Oh you’re not like black black. You’re different; you know, you don’t talk the way black people talk.’ Really? ‘Cause I’m black, and this is how I’m talking. So the desire to see a plethora of our experiences, to have our humanity fully shared, is something that is not just good for us; it’s good for the world…” –Sterling K. Brown to Shanelle Genai of The Root.
Directed by Cord Jefferson, American Fiction follows Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright, The Batman), an ornery professor and novelist who returns home to the metro Boston area to visit his estranged family after being let go by his university. Monk finds himself disgruntled with the state of the publishing world, as the novels getting the most acclaim cater to tired stereotypes of how black Americans speak and behave, as well as the struggles they must overcome that are always tied to their skin color. Desperate to bring more attention to his own work, he pens a story perpetuating such narratives as a joke, hoping to prove a point about the need for stories not rooted in black trauma. Instead, his book, authored under a pseudonym with a criminal background, is embraced and bolstered by its publishers. This forces him to continue the charade, as the popularity of what began as a satirical work skyrockets.
The above synopsis highlights American Fiction’s “A story,” often referred to in sitcom circles as the “Big Lie.” This trope occurs frequently in such TV shows, where a character makes up a spontaneous lie to get out of trouble. The character then goes to greater and greater lengths to maintain the lie as more people become involved and the consequences increase tenfold. If you’ve seen any trailers for American Fiction, you know that this is mainly the premise that the film presents to entice viewers to the box office. The film plays up this comedic thread to much success, inducing several belly laughs from its audience with absurdist humor. For instance, Monk’s initial envy is sparked by the novel of a contemporary named Sintara (Issa Rae, Insecure), whose bestselling book is entitled We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. Monk lends a similarly goofy name to his own work before upping the ante later in the film.
While setting up this A story, the film very shrewdly brings in its more substantive B story: Monk’s complicated relationship with his family. Having a brother and a sister, played by Sterling K. Brown (This is Us) and Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish), Monk learns upon his visit home of family secrets, financial troubles, and health concerns. In the midst of being a frustrated novelist with somewhat petty gripes, he must process all of the new information and be the rock for his family, along with fostering his relationship with a new love interest. As it pokes fun at the prevalence of stories displaying black Americans as a suffering monolith, American Fiction simultaneously ushers in a tale that delivers exactly what the protagonist argues is lacking from modern storytelling.
What elevates the film even further is its ability to push back on its own thesis. While the film highlights the dearth of more humane, multi-dimensional stories revolving around black characters, it does not dismiss the value of stories that exist within that monolith either. This becomes abundantly clear when Monk’s love interest utters to him, “Sooner or later, you have to realize that being unable to relate to people is not a badge of honor.” Ultimately, Monk’s disdain for the stories of his contemporaries is tied not just to his moral compass but also his elitism and insecurity. His works are not as popular as he feels they should be, and he criticizes others as one of many ways to shield himself from the pain of rejection. The inner struggle plays out again later in a heated conversation with Sintara about her novel. Naturally, this characteristic carries over into other areas of his life as well.
Several subtler themes permeate the film, including how white guilt often operates in academic circles. The movie opens with Monk going back and forth with a white student who objects to covering a book with a racial slur in the title. She expresses her discomfort and disapproval of the word, and Monk replies, “If I got over it, you can too.” His blunt communication eventually prompts her to leave the classroom in tears, for which he is later held responsible. The scene pokes fun at the notion of valuing comfortability over honest discourse, a frequent occurrence in the discussion of social issues. Later on, as Monk pitches a ridiculous title for his book to publishers over the phone, they go along with it rather than pushing back or drawing a hard line in the sand. While the responses of these characters seem over-the-top, they are grounded in the reality of an unwillingness to offend resulting in naïve or disingenuous stances.
A similar movie dealing with a frustrated writer’s quest for validation could be the earlier 2023 release You Hurt My Feelings, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Her character is less scorned by the industry as a whole and more so by her supportive husband’s negative review. Another film with a like-minded premise is the 2000 stage play-adapted drama Chinese Coffee, in which Al Pacino and Jerry Orbach play unsuccessful writers who argue over the latest book that Pacino’s character has written. While neither deal with the larger scope of the publishing world, both, along with American Fiction, depict pretentiousness and resentment seeping into the minds of individuals in what can be a challenging, lonely profession.
Already a Golden Globes nominee and festival favorite, American Fiction delivers on providing a less often-told story of black existence, while still including elements of more popular works. Its characters experience pain and suffering, but they also love, laugh and celebrate together. The film’s ability to show the full range of human emotion highlights the rarity of such stories. To Sterling K. Brown’s quote, such work benefits not just black audiences but all consumers.