I didn’t know what to expect when I added American Fiction to my watch list for TIFF 2023. Somehow, it managed to become one of my favourite films from this year’s festival. An adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, the film deals with representation and what is expected of black culture in a biting, funny, and often heartbreaking way. With strong performances, human dialogue and some fantastically memorable scenes, American Fiction is the kind of film that makes TIFF worth attending.
In American Fiction, first-time director Cord Jefferson (The Good Place, Master of None) brings the story of Monk (Jeffrey Wright), a well-respected novelist who, despite being an expert at his craft, has never managed to achieve success or fame due to how black entertainment often focuses on recycling offensive tropes and concepts.
Seeing the situation as ridiculous, Monk decides to show the true hypocrisy of the industry by writing a book that embraces every trope and stereotype possible to show how horrible it would be. Somehow, with this new novel he made only to make a statement, he achieves all the fame and success he wants with each new attempt at self-sabotage only pushing him to new heights.
“With strong performances, human dialogue and some fantastically memorable scenes, American Fiction is the kind of film that makes TIFF worth attending.”
As if that were not enough to push even the most grounded person over the edge, he also has to deal with family struggles, death, and the problems of caring for an aging loved ones, with all the stress and financial strain that puts on people. It is hard to imagine how all of this adds up to one person, but somehow, Cord Jefferson manages the balance perfectly, providing the right amount of humour in between some of the most gut-wrenching scenes I have seen on screen this year.
American Fiction is the kind of film that leans into the situation, pokes fun at the culture that enables trauma porn, and uses marginalized stories to make the average person in power feel better about their lives. It is a film that shows how often the words brave, raw, and challenging are thrown around, but rarely do they encompass how well-written or complex these books or works of entertainment really are.
I honestly struggled with writing this review because I have not experienced many of the issues that the people in this movie have gone through, and I really did not want to fall into the same problem that the movie rallies against in its satire, so here is hoping I make it.
First of all, this is a cast that few people could ever hope to get in a movie. American Fiction is the kind of movie that will have the trades and critics clamouring to award Jeffrey Wright for every accolade they can find. American Fiction managing the great balance of fun and hard truths that the Academy usually loves, and any award they manage to get would be well deserved. With a supporting cast that includes such names as Tracee Ellis Ross, Adam Brody, Sterling K. Brown, Keith David, and many others, you know you are in for a treat even before the opening scene begins.
“American Fiction is the kind of film that leans into the situation, pokes fun at the culture that enables trauma porn, and uses marginalized stories to make the average person in power feel better about their lives.”
Jeffrey Wright is expertly cast as disillusioned writer Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, perfectly capturing his frustration and disdain for a world that refuses to see beyond his race as he works in the world of literature. He walks the fine line of balancing satire while delivering an incredibly natural take on family struggles and tragedy in a way that makes it hard to look away. He works expertly with the entire cast to make his character instantly relatable and endearing, even as he makes decisions that make you audibly ask why.
While American Fiction manages some incredible satire and humour, the understated family moments help elevate the film beyond just another social commentary into something amazing. Monk’s home life feels incredibly natural, with the struggles and issues that many people, regardless of race or culture, will encounter. Though all successful in their lives, his family is incredibly broken, dealing with their own traumas and issues.
While the film is brimming with sharp commentary on how black stories are limited to narratives of trauma and poverty, it also examines the pressures and complexities of maintaining family relationships when everyone is caught up in their own struggles. Monk’s affluent background and academic achievements set him apart from societal stereotypes, but his family, despite their success, must still deal with issues that are universally human — aging parents, sibling rivalries, and the weight of expectations.
The scenes involving Monk and his siblings, played with gravitas by Tracey Ellis Ross and Sterling K. Brown, are where the film is at its most emotionally resonant. It’s in these family interactions that black characters can step away from how the world sees them and focus on their own self and what they want out of life. These are not just throwaway moments to add depth; they are essential to the film’s architecture, allowing for a more rounded exploration of Monk as a character.
His sister, Lisa, provides a blunt reality check on his existential concerns, and his brother, Clifford, coping with a new life as an openly gay divorcee, challenges Monk’s own prejudices and assumptions. Together, they offer a counter-narrative to Monk’s disillusionment, presenting a more multifaceted view of black life that transcends the restrictive societal framework he so critiques. These familial moments not only serve as a break from the satire but also reinforce the film’s overarching argument that authentic stories of black life cannot be confined to reductive categories. They add a layer of sincerity that makes American Fiction not just a social critique but a deeply human story.
While not everything in American Fiction works, the movie as a whole is one of the best I have seen all year. The performances are sublime, the satire is biting, and the film as a whole is worthy of all the awards I predict it will win. Cord Jefferson has delivered one of the best first features I have seen in a long time, and I am truly excited to hear the dialogue that will be generated around it. If you get the chance, American Fiction is a movie you can’t miss. This is the kind of film festivals like TIFF are made for.