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Every era has its own 'American Fiction,' but is there anything new to say?

Coraline (Erika Alexander) and Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) in <em>American Fiction</em>.
Claire Folger
Orion Releasing LLC
Coraline (Erika Alexander) and Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) in American Fiction.

This essay contains spoilers for the new film American Fiction.

A thing about racial stereotypes in America is their stubborn pervasiveness — how they're impossible to eradicate completely even as societal ideals and sensitivities progress over time; how all-consuming they can remain, keeping Black artists on the defensive and in constant need of addressing and defying them in their work. Toni Morrison referred to racism as a means of "distraction," a way to keep marginalized people "explaining, over and over again, [their] reason for being."

Understanding this reality helps explain why every era gets at least one or two notable social satires wrestling with the tension between Black art and commerce (also known as "selling out"). Cord Jefferson's thought-provoking directorial debut American Fiction is the latest iteration. It's based onPercival Everett's savvy novel Erasure,which was first published more than two decades ago, but naturally feels as relevant as ever, what with the pervasiveness of racial tropes and all the accompanying discourse.

Like a plethora of real and fictional creatives before him, novelist Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, played by Jeffrey Wright in one of his finest roles to date, initially resists the confines of stereotypical Blackness until he's too desperate to continue resisting. Fed up with multiple rejections of his latest esoteric manuscript, he sets out to write the "Blackest" novel he can imagine, just to prove a point about the industry's shallow interest in Black storytelling. My Pafology — later retitled F*** — is a ghetto melodrama penned under the sly pseudonym "Stagg R. Leigh." (The profane word is spelled out in the film.) It's meant to be a twisted joke but ends up netting him a huge offer. It's swept up by a big corporate publisher, a movie producer, and the reading public, much to Monk's existential angst and his financial benefit. Only his agent Arthur (John Ortiz) knows the truth.

There's no need to squint to see Monk's frustrated forebears: aspiring actor Bobby Taylor in Hollywood Shuffle, the fictional hip-hop group in CB4, TV writer Pierre Delacroix in Bamboozled, and many more. There are also direct and indirect references in American Fiction to Tyler Perry and the novel Push by Sapphire, about a pregnant and impoverished teenager, that inspired the movie Precious (which, it's probably worth noting, Perry co-produced).

And so with regards to its premise, it feels like a stretch to call Jefferson's film daring or pioneering, though it is funny and spot-on in its depiction of the publishing industry. Very darkly comic is Arthur's complete lack of concern that the publisher will find out Stagg R. Leigh is not, in fact, a wanted fugitive. That's the lurid backstory they've concocted for this fake writer — because, as Arthur points out, the profession of fact-checking is basically dead: "They hardly pay editors anymore."

A not so easy fade to black

Despite the film's undeniable intelligence, it is its ambiguous conclusion, which diverges from its source material, that is both curious and tougher to digest. This is far from a "bad" thing — it's actually the film's most transgressive facet — but a question arose for me as to the creative limitations of this genre of film as cultural critique. It's a tradition that functions in part as an act of resistance against the very industries that limit portrayals of Blackness.

In this specific brand of satire, there usually comes a point when the protagonist, led astray by the allure of fame and fortune, finally reaches a breaking point and attempts to buy back their soul with something resembling dignity. It doesn't quite work that way in American Fiction.

The last several minutes of the movie take a sharp turn into an absurdist meta realm that's only hinted at in earlier parts of the film. Several vastly different fates are imagined for Monk, none of them pat.

Here's how the possibilities are presented and where the spoilers begin: the glowing reception and accolades for Monk's novel reach a fever pitch when F*** is thrown in for consideration for a prestigious award given by a committee on which Monk just so happens to be a judge. He and a fellow Black author named Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) — whose unironically terrible and stereotypical bestseller is the bane of Monk's creative existence — agree that F*** is "pandering" trash. Nevertheless, they're outvoted by their white peers, who are all too eager to crown this "essential" piece of work regardless of its aesthetic merits.

At the awards ceremony, F*** is announced as the big winner, though the audience isn't sure if the book's mysterious and unseen author will finally reveal himself. After some hesitation, Monk makes his way to the podium to the confusion of everyone. But before he can say anything, the scene cuts to black to reveal Monk on a set with a smarmy and clueless movie producer named Wiley, played by Adam Brody.

Wiley originally planned to make a movie adaptation of F***, but Monk's new idea is to write about his experience creating the Stagg R. Leigh pseudonym – basically, the events of American Fiction. Now, they're discussing options for the film's ending at the award ceremony, and Monk's first suggestion, the ambiguous cut to black we've just watched, doesn't impress Wiley, even though it's the closest thing to the truth. (Monk says that in real life he just walked away and left the ceremony.)

Monk's second proposed conclusion is for his character to rush out of the ceremony to reconcile with Coraline (Erika Alexander), the girlfriend he pushed away while stressing over his big Stagg lie. Basically, it's a rom-com ending, with Monk rushing to her doorstep to apologize: "I haven't been myself lately."

Wiley rejects this idea, too.

The final proposed idea is the most dramatic and overwrought: Monk standing at the podium to accept the award, only to get gunned down by federal agents in a hail of bullets; remember, Stagg R. Leigh is a wanted fugitive. (For what, exactly? That's not the point.)

Of course, Wiley loves this ending, and an irritated but resigned Monk saunters off to meet his brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), who's waiting outside for him on the studio lot in a convertible. Right before they drive off into the Hollywood sun, Monk makes eye contact with a Black actor outfitted in an enslaved person's costume. The actor throws up a peace sign, Monk nods. The [actual] end.

Apart from an earlier scene where two characters from F*** (played by Keith David and Okieriete Onaodowan) spring from Monk's imagination to act out a scene as he's crafting it, this choose-your-own-adventure finale is the most formally experimental American Fiction gets. Somewhat to the movie's detriment, those two sequences suggest a realm of possibilities for what a different, weirder version of the film might have looked like — a bit more like Erasure, perhaps.

In addition to his career woes, Monk must balance his personal life, which includes his brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) and new girlfriend Coraline (Erika Alexander).
Claire Folger / Orion Releasing LLC
Orion Releasing LLC
In addition to his career woes, Monk must balance his personal life, which includes his brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) and new girlfriend Coraline (Erika Alexander).

Novel origins and weirder roads not taken

Everett's 2001 book is far more idiosyncratic than its movie version, as is more possible in novel form, switching between literary modes and voices constantly. At one point Monk's narrative digresses to immerse the reader in 10 uninterrupted chapters of F***, just so you can fully grasp its deeply ignorant contents, the kind white people trip over to praise as representing an "authentic" Black experience. It's playful and scathing, balancing Monk's personal life and self-loathing with glimpses of how the public responds to F*** via rave reviews and press interviews.

In contrast, American Fiction draws more heavily on Erasure's intimate family drama, spending much of its runtime within Monk's messy personal life. His motivation to keep the Stagg ruse going is in part driven by his dysfunctional family's finances; his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) is sick, and when his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) dies unexpectedly, the responsibilities for the bills and caretaking fall to him.

This aspect of the film is beautifully executed, and a sharp but understated look at thedisproportionate precarity of generational wealth among even the most accomplished of Black American families. (Theirs is a family of doctors, plus Monk, the black sheep.) But at times it almost feels like a completely different movie, one at odds with the inherent oddity of Monk's professional misadventures. It keeps the satirical threads constrained to familiar, linear beats — the white publisher, who only converses with Monk over the phone, expecting Stagg totalk "Black";the overconfident movie producer clearly inspired by Quentin Tarantino.

In Spike Lee's <em>Bamboozled</em>, Damon Wayans plays a TV writer who unintentionally creates a hit TV minstrel show, and pays a hefty price for it.
David Lee/Online USA / Getty
In Spike Lee's Bamboozled, Damon Wayans plays a TV writer who unintentionally creates a hit TV minstrel show, and pays a hefty price for it.

The conundrum is that these culture industry trappings remain ever topical, a distraction, as it were ... and they remain worth addressing. But this might be a case where the satire is a little too muted and straightforward, and could benefit from being just a little more weird. The most interesting kinds of satire push critique forward and/or explore bolder and surprising approaches to reiterating age-old grievances — think Boots Riley's fantastical Sorry to Bother Youand I'm a Virgo or Terence Nance's surrealistic Random Acts of Flyness. (For his part, Jefferson has said he set out to make a satire, "but not a farce"; duly noted.)

I found myself wondering what are the reactions to F*** from the rest of the fictional public, beyond the money-grubbing white publishers and Hollywood producers? Is Black Twitter destroying it on social media? Are students debating its merits on college campuses? Do right-wing commentators prop it up as further proof of the "scourge" of "black-on-black crime"? American Fiction isn't particularly interested in these questions, though stereotypes about deadbeat dads and welfare queens aren't the only bug-a-boos Black people have to contend with these days. (Being seen as a "woke mob" or "affirmative action hires" is its own kind of hell.)

And yet, even if American Fiction doesn't quite innovate the grand tradition of satirizing Black sell-outs, its beats are well-crafted and buoyed by excellent performances, especially by Wright, who makes the cantankerous, self-obsessed Monk such a delight to spend a couple of hours with.

In addition, that actual final ending comes ever so close to being something truly subversive in that Monk doesn't experience any fallout from the Stagg mess. It's unclear that he ever will. He doesn't even seem all that torn up about it, unlike, say, Bobby in Hollywood Shuffle, who rejects his first lead role as a jive-talking pimp, or his literary counterpart in Everett's Erasure, who at the end imagines seeing a boy, "perhaps me as boy," holding up a mirror to his face to reveal Stagg Leigh in his reflection.

Is American Fiction's Monk annoyed he has to keep playing the game to "succeed"? Sure. But not enough to stop cashing those checks in exchange for his soul. Art imitates life and life becomes film. As Monk tells Wiley during his pitch, "There is no moral. That's the idea."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.