“American Fiction” Pillories Tired Hollywood Racism
And tired Hollywood narrative conventions too.
Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction ends (sort of) with its Black protagonist, Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), gunned down in a hail of police bullets. If you wince when you hear that—well, that’s the point. The movie is a satire of the stereotypes and narrative conventions which define, and overdetermine, Black representation in fiction. It’s also a satire, though, of narrative itself, so that it ends up suggesting that racial stereotypes are produced by, and are inseparable from, stereotypical stories. Limited imagination limits who we can be, and who we can allow others to be. If we want to be less racist, we maybe need to tell weirder stories.
The story here doesn’t look especially weird at first. Monk is an acerbic literature professor on the west coast whose frank discussions of racism in the classroom alienates his students, and whose writer’s block has undermined his position in his department. He’s pushed to take a leave of absence in his hometown of Boston, where he finds that his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) has Alzheimer’s and is sliding into dementia. While he’s trying to decide how to deal with this oncoming tragedy, he meets next door neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander), whose job it is, you’ve no doubt figured out, to teach him to live and love again.
The film resolutely refuses to stick with that story though. Instead, it wanders off to pursue Monk’s professional frustrations. He’s bitter that his literary updatings of Greek classics aren’t considered “Black” enough for publishers or audiences, so he decides to write a clichéd racist pulp piece of crap about a poor, violent, criminal Black protagonist with an eye-patch who shoots his dead-beat father while speaking in a tortured white person’s idea of ebonix. He titles it My Pafology, signs it with the pen name “Stagg R. Leigh”, and, then, to his horror, watches as the book becomes incredibly popular.
That’s a lot of criss-crossing plot for a two hour movie, and I haven’t even discussed the subplot with Monk’s newly out gay plastic surgeon brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown.) But the movie doesn’t feel rushed, in part because of Wright’s masterfully understated performance. Monk wanders through the movie with the slow, measured pace of a man distracted by his own exhausted irritation—at white people’s persistent ability to sink below even his low estimate of them, at his family’s dysfunction, at his own interpersonal and publishing failures—and, even worse, at his publishing successes. One of the funniest scenes in the film is when Monk tries to shut down the novel’s publication by insisting on changing the title from My Pafology to Fuck. But the PR flacks love it. Over the phone they tell him Fuck is so, so…. “So Black?” he says. “I’m glad you said it and not me!” the flack giggles as Monk’s whole body slumps in defeat.
The strain of Monk’s deception and self-loathing eats through his budding romance. It also eats through the narrative progress and resolution of the film. There’s a rom com here, a family drama, a story of finding one’s true self, and the stereotypically violent story of Fuck itself. But none of those storylines quite tie up. Instead, they pull apart and flap rather helplessly. Monk can’t be Monk while Stagg is around, and the film can’t let go of Stagg, the real fake Black voice that white people—audiences, publishers, directors—want to adopt as their own.
The movie’s conclusion is a cop out in some ways, acknowledging its own fictionality to avoid having to actually conclude the fiction. But Wright carries even this off, in part just by the fact that if it’s a fiction, that’s not Monk, but Jeffrey Wright standing there. He’s got a familiar face, and that familiar, wonderful voice, but he suggests, by loosening Monk’s bodies language just a touch, that Jeffrey Wright is more than this character, and more than you can quite get into a film, be it romcom, violent police critique, or even metafictional game. American Fiction insists you can’t get all of anyone, and especially not all of Black people, in the movies.
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