TORONTO — In today’s world where representation and diversity are too often celebrated over quality, we’ve seen a lot of filmmakers continue to deliver films that “feed the beast.” In other words, check all the boxes of inclusion, cater to issues already in the cultural discourse and, essentially, be the lowest common denominator.
They’re not only honored among the white establishment (including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), but these films are also valued among audiences that voraciously consume them — boosting box office sales and dialogue on social media.
Cord Jefferson, writer-director of “American Fiction,” evidently understands this. His new film, which premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is a pithy, self-aware and hypercritical satire about how mainstream (read: white) media favors racial stereotypes in storytelling over any other portrayals of Blackness.
It does this, though, by also becoming the very thing it excoriates: a soulless story that is entertaining just enough for white people to be in on the joke, but offers very little for the rest of us looking for punchier, more thoughtful and certainly more inventive fare.
If you’ve watched Robert Townsend take aim at the white gaze in 1987’s “Hollywood Shuffle,” Michael R. Jackson’s incisive critique of Tyler Perry’s trope-filled stories in Broadway’s “A Strange Loop” or Spike Lee’s 2000 blackface satire “Bamboozled,” you know this conversation.
And each of those — even “The Other Black Girl,” which is far from perfect — is at least more interesting than much of what “American Fiction” becomes. Much of that is because these earlier offerings better wrestle with the complexities of Blackness with fuller formed characters.
“American Fiction” is scattered in a variety of mildly interesting, conflicting thoughts with storylines that go every which way.
Based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” the movie centers on Thelonius “Monk” Ellison (an always dependable Jeffrey Wright) as an English professor and less than successful author frustrated with white liberalism and what constitutes great Black art these days.
While on a very low attended author panel for his deeply researched new book, he learns of Sintara Golden’s (Issa Rae) new novel, “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” making waves at the jam-packed talk nearby. Monk is aghast when she reads a passage from her book in a ludicrous Blaccent. The audience at the talk, which is racially mixed, applauds.
The audience watching “American Fiction” at its Toronto premiere doubled over with laughter during this scene.
Jefferson’s movie is rife with “it’s funny because it’s true” jokes that point to the tone-deafness of both mainstream media and consumers, some of whom have their heads so far up their asses that they think the more stereotypes a work of fiction has, the more authentically Black it is.
Then there’s the book publishers that respond to a greater demand for diversity by signing whatever tropey book they can find most instantly, the literary awards committees whose subjectivity is just as compromised, authors like Sintara pushing along that same agenda and the readers that buy into it. “American Fiction” highlights all of this entertainingly.
That’s relatively easy to do because it is as ridiculous in real life as it is portrayed here on screen. And to his credit, Jefferson occasionally illustrates this in creative ways.
One moment comes early in the film when, in response to the disappointing market landscape, Monk pens a draft of a new book that meets the readers where they are: a story set in the hood with a Black man pulling a gun on his dad.
In the film, this plot within a plot springs to life with two actors (one played by Keith David) enacting the scene in Monk’s office as he types away at them on his computer. Wait, is the dad an alcoholic? Does the story need that? David’s character steps outside of character to challenge his creator. Monk, as if in response to his own fictional characters, deletes that version of the character and David replays him anew.
That’s a brief but effective comedic portrayal that lets Wright and all the actors in the scene really go ham, and it works in a very surrealist way that is reminiscent of the best parts of Hulu’s now-canceled series, “Woke.”
Monk sends this ridiculous draft to his publisher, and of course it’s hungrily embraced by the masses, rendering his previous work irrelevant. Add to that, he has to pretend to be a fugitive on the run in order to gain even more interest from white media, effectively throwing him into a conflict of identity.
Jefferson unsurprisingly excels in this context, considering he’s the same filmmaker who delivered the exquisite “Watchmen” episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” and a slew of other smart television work. “American Fiction” marks his big screen feature directorial debut that both underscores his insightful voice as a creative, and his shortcomings as a novice filmmaker.
In his foreword in the press notes for “American Fiction,” Jefferson writes, “I made this movie for everyone tired of these lazy, monotonous stories — especially the generations of Black artists who have too often been tasked with rendering rote suffering, to the neglect of their countless other abilities.”
That’s a worthy statement, and clearly bears repeating as it has been said many times in the past. But “American Fiction” doesn’t really do much beyond that, especially when it comes to the characters who are in many ways newly grappling with their own Blackness, especially Monk.
“I wanted to make an honest film that speaks to both the universality of being marginalized by the world and the unique individuality that animates every person on earth,” Jefferson continued in the press notes.
Right around here is when a large chunk of storytelling in “American Fiction” begins to splay out. Monk dealing with the success of the caricatures he’s penned and the one he’s become puts him in a vulnerable position to do a lot of self-reflection.
He’s an intellectual from the Boston area who left his family as soon as he could for a career in Los Angeles, distancing himself from his roots and changing his name.
There are many references to him being in relationships with white women in the past, all of which obviously failed, further carving a spec for a character who seems to be at war with his Blackness and hiding it in self-proclaimed intellectualism. But that’s a viewer projection that is only flimsily explored in “American Fiction.”
While Monk is the protagonist in the story, it’s hard to tell whether we should root for him, or even how much we should care about him, because so much of Jefferson’s story here presents him more as a flawed symbol worth discussing, not an actual human. His journey, while theoretically interesting, feels ultimately incomplete.
Even his debates become less and less interesting to watch unfold. For instance, there’s a scene where Monk confronts Sintara about the stereotypes she perpetuates in her book, and her defense is essentially that every version of Blackness deserves a platform.
That’s a good answer to a question no one asks her, and is remarkably uninteresting coming from someone like her who had an elite education and has not actually lived any of the experiences she depicts in her book.
She should have already expected Monk’s question ― and have a response to it.
This moment comes to mind because it’s a good opportunity to take Monk to task for his own shortsightedness as a Black man with hangups on race. Sintara’s retort is weak, underscoring a movie that highlights issues of race and class, but doesn’t know how to properly examine them.
Then there are the broader characters in “American Fiction,” mostly Monk’s family that, while intriguing, have no real ground in the story. Monk has a strained relationship with both his sister Lisa (a far-too-brief Tracee Ellis Ross) and his recently out brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown). And during his recent trip back home, he struggles to navigate an ailing mother (Leslie Uggams).
Because each of the supporting characters are underdeveloped, they’re more often reduced to providing punchlines than even helping crack open Monk as a character. Like Monk, they’re written more as concepts than people. The overworked daughter. The prodigal son who is long felt unloved by his parents. And Monk, the living, breathing existential crisis.
While Cliff and, of course, Monk, have storyline galore, so much of it feels extraneous and superficial. Even the latter’s new relationship with Coraline (a woefully underused Erika Alexander) feels peripheral. Even Massachusetts itself feels like it should be its own character in this story of a Black man experiencing a racial crisis ― also a missed opportunity.
So much time is spent there that it weakens the core of “American Fiction.” It ultimately feels like it wants to be a broad comedy about race, yet wholly uninterested in what it wants to say about it. The movie often condemns the idea that Black art needs to be important or have a message to be considered worthy, and that’s totally fair. It shouldn’t be burdened with that responsibility.
But the film’s ideas do need to be fleshed out, its characters should be expected to be as challenging and human as the subjects raised in the film. Otherwise, it’s a really funny satire that is also empty.
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