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American Fiction ★★★

Availability: Still showing in some theaters nationally. Streaming on multiple sites, including AppleTV and Amazon; see JustWatch here for full availability.

Woke Satire Meets RomCom

A white student challenges the word her Black professor writes on the blackboard in his college class on literature of the American South. After a brief back-and-forth, she declares herself offended and walks out of class. This refreshing opening scene holds high promise for writer and first-time feature director Cord Jefferson’s satire on the current temptation—by white folks—to slobber over what they understand as “authentic” Black literature. Professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright)—the namesake of both a fiercely independent musician and the author of “Invisible Man”—reluctantly abandons his academic identity and takes on the pseudonym “Stagger E. Leigh.” “My Pathology” becomes “Ma Pafology.” The white folks eat it up.

"Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) dons a new identity to ridicule the misguided white search for "authentic" Black literature.


“American Fiction” is structured as standard RomCom, bearing the trademarks of that ever-popular genre.


Jefferson’s script is based on “Erasure,” the 2001 novel by prize-winning writer Percival Everett about a Black author commodifying his art. The premise and some of the twists and turns along the way offer clever, entertaining, and much-needed antidotes to today’s woke culture, making the film mostly interesting. “Mostly,” because “American Fiction” is structured as standard RomCom, bearing the trademarks of that ever-popular genre.


 On his “journey” (in “The Bachelor” franchise parlance), Monk hasn’t learned to be “vulnerable.”


Inside the intriguing wrapping of a humorous critique of DEI gone wild, the film is about the personal deficiencies of Monk, a serious, scholarly professor. People want to love him, but he won’t let them. He’s the too-old-to-be-single introvert who can’t commit and can’t “open up,” not unlike the immature guys who inhabit most RomComs and, iconically, TV’s “The Bachelorette.” Monk’s brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), a doctor, is Monk’s counterpart, and stand-in for a life authentically lived. He’s just come out as a gay man after leaving his white wife (the marriage a betrayal of his true identity), and he’s enjoying being into drugs. Cliff and Coraline (Erika Alexander), the appealing across-the-street neighbor, offer Monk an intimacy, respectively familial and romantic, that the stolid professor can’t handle. On his “journey” (in “The Bachelor” franchise parlance), Monk hasn’t learned to be “vulnerable.” Can his mother’s live-in aide Lorraine or his damaged brother Cliff save him? In “The Holdovers,” could Mary (the traumatized dining room head) or Angus (the damaged rich kid) teach Professor Paul Hunham how to be human?

Neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander) holds the promise of leading the professor (Jeffrey Wright) out of his insular existence.

Wright leads an experienced and talented cast (besides Brown and Alexander, Tracee Ellis Ross, Adam Brody, Issa Rae, and Leslie Uggams as Monk’s mother, who is descending into dementia) in what could be an exploration of what it’s like to be Black in America today, if one assumes that to succeed a Black person must lead a life of “fiction,” playing to white stereotypes of the Black experience.


“The Holdovers” and “American Fiction” share (as they do with other 2023 movies) small ruptures in RomCom standards.


Like “The Holdovers,” “American Fiction” is multi-Oscar nominated, including for Best Picture and Best Actor. The films also share (as they do with other 2023 movies) small ruptures in RomCom standards. The couple one cares about never quite comes together. There’s no applause scene. Unlike in “Maestro,” the long-suffering partner doesn’t stand in the wings gazing lovingly at the heretofore not-very-nice protagonist as he triumphs. Or does she? As the first quarter of the 21st century comes to a close, we seem still to value our RomComs, but without the easy and anticipated resolution. Witness Barbie and Ken.

Monk's brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), right, tells him people want to love him, but he won't let them.

“American Fiction” should rise above its RomCom roots. It offers a provocative premise, a surprise ending, and the pleasure of making fun of silly white people (thank you, Richard Pryor). But ultimately the film gets bogged down in its cleverness, to the point that one can’t tell if there’s any authenticity left, or if it’s even achievable. Will the real Monk please stand up? 


Date: 2023

Director: Cord Jefferson

Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Leslie Uggams, Tracee Ellis Ross, Erika Alexander, Adam Brody, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown

Country: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 117 minutes

Oscar Nominations: 5 - Best Original Score, Laura Karpman; Best Motion Picture; Best Actor, Jeffrey Wright; Best Supporting Actor, Sterling K. Brown; Best Adapted Screenplay, Cord Jefferson

Other Awards: 52 wins and 169 nominations total

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