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American Fiction Review

by Daniel Reynolds
3.0 out of 5.0 stars

As two movies in one, writer-director Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction strives to please everyone. On the one hand, his film has a touching family drama involving the serious matters of growing older and making time for what’s worthwhile. On the other, Jefferson wants to lacerate the publishing industry—and, by extension, the whole of entertainment—for the constraints it puts on Black expression.

At the centre of both stories is Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a struggling author who decides out of frustration to anonymously write a “Black” novel about violence, drugs, and trauma, e.g. the narrative elements deemed salable by the white establishment. Of course, irony of ironies: the book is a hit, leaving Monk to navigate this unfortunate brand of success. If Jefferson’s film was only this, it’s possible to see how it could work as a toxic satire. Wright’s performance alone sells it and the knowing jokes do garner some laughs (albeit obvious ones). But the film’s edges are continuously softened by its family and romance subplots (with Erika Alexander, in particular, putting in thankless work for the latter). Admittedly, these elements afford Jefferson space to highlight the inherent variety of Black American life, but it makes his film feel disjointed and toothless. Is Jefferson going for the jugular or a hug?

In any case, just when American Fiction should be ramping up, the film runs out of room to say anything new. Because Jefferson wants the film to be a crowd-pleaser, his gags ultimately flatter the audience; at the same time, because we’re meant to root for Monk, there’s no real way to resolve the film’s drama either. The entire enterprise literally rides off into the sunset, which serves as the film’s real punchline—though likely an unintended one.

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