Beyond Black and White: The Layered Satire of ‘American Fiction’

Cord Jefferson's film, based on Percival Everett's novel, critiques racial stereotypes in literature and media, blending family drama and satire.
America Fiction (2023)


African American professor and author Monk is experiencing a professional and familial crisis. Publishers refuse to release his latest book, deeming it “not black enough.” In response, he decides to write under a pseudonym a novel that turns into a literary sensation…

American Fiction is a tale that undergoes a double filtration before making its way to the screen. It all starts with the autobiographical experience of writer Percival Everett and his bitter reflection turned novel, Erasure, released in the United States in 2001 and translated in Italy in 2007 as Cancellazione by Instar, now virtually impossible to find. From the book, Cord Jefferson, a journalist, TV writer, and former editor of Gawker, a gossip site with a Manhattan editorial office, made his directorial debut. But let’s take it step by step. At the end of the last century, Everett discovered on the shelves of a large bookstore that his volume, Frenzy, about an assistant to the god Dionysus, was not listed among literature or mythology books but had been relegated to the African American studies section. It’s worth noting that Everett is particularly eccentric within the categorizing culture of compartmentalization, as disconcerting as the black taxi driver passionate about country music from The Big Lebowski, because he is incidentally an African American writer in the way Ta-Nehisi Coates or Colson Whitehead are generally understood, to the point of becoming famous in the United States for a series of Western volumes. After reflecting at length on the stereotype trapping black writers, he churns out the novel from which American Fiction is adapted, showing in its current Oscar-nominated film form how prejudice has not improved after about another quarter of a century.

In the hands of Cord Jefferson, who also faithfully scripted the film compared to the novel, softening only a couple of subplots that would have expanded an already wide range of options, the critique of the stereotype is merely the starting point for a story that morphs into a family melodrama about memory loss and modernizes into a nevertheless enjoyable but rather obvious metanarrative digression that occupied ten chapters in the novel. A middle-aged writer who hasn’t published for a while because he’s estranged from market logic, finds himself stuck in Boston with his family (not only) due to his mother’s worsening Alzheimer’s and is thus forced to confront his past, before finding himself trapped in the same publishing dynamics he so despises.

Everett criticized clichés and sociocultural cages, stigmatizing not only the guilty white conscience, which stands indignant to decree because it’s incapable of contextualizing for analysis, but also the cultural industry and its pretense of promoting only products that reinforce the predefined model, made of raw ghetto realism and trigger-happy police. The film adjusts its aim, aware of the years separating it from the book, and also incorporates hints of a cancel culture ready to lash out with integralist hints against words with double Gs (or Ns, in Italian versions), in an opening scene that instructs on the climate in which the protagonist struggles to assert himself as a writer devoid of a connotation he considers demeaning.

Moreover, speaking of prejudice, the protagonist has a name that couldn’t be more black: Ellison, like Ralph, the author of the anti-racist manifesto Invisible Man, and is nicknamed Monk, almost a brand for someone named Thelonious like the legendary jazz pianist. His is a redemption battle for the subject of his writing, also because, by origin and social extraction, he belongs to the upper middle class and the stories of deadbeat dads, rappers, crack, and police violence he has only read about in newspapers. Like the whites who strive to advocate what they mistakenly think is also his cause.

American Fiction revolves entirely around its finely characterized cast of characters, among which Jeffrey Wright stands out, always somewhat underused and underestimated, capable here instead of modulating the complexity of Monk Ellison from incredulous stillness to those subtle hints in facial expressions that make a great performance. And effectively erasing, in fact, Jefferson’s rhythmic but too orderly direction, which breaks free from application on characters and dialogues only in a telling moment, when Ellison’s surprised figure, happening upon a crowded room where that type of novel he despises is being presented, is suddenly covered by the entire crowd rising to give the pragmatic author an enthusiastic standing ovation, thus vividly depicting his alienation from the dominant cultural environment.

In Ellison, indeed, the paradox of being an outcast despite his origin and belonging is realized. He is an outsider not because of social discomfort, but emotional, due to his personal closure in an ivory tower of academia that prevents him from looking beyond himself and his aspirations, as pointed out by Sintara Golden, the writer who, unlike him, has looked beyond herself and adapted, to her benefit. Ellison is disconnected from everything around him, from the cultural context, because he does not produce, to the academic one, which rebukes him and accuses him of insensitivity to ethical and racial themes. He is also isolated within his family, where he has not upheld the medical tradition of all the other members. And certainly, he is also alienated on an emotional level, because he is incapable of fully opening up to others.

Where the danger would have been to depict a predictable path of progressive awareness, the film’s great merit lies in narrating a reluctant experience of disguise, becoming a successful example of satire where the protagonist commits a series of acts all contrary to his will, from the fundamental (writing a bestseller by forcing himself into slang that is not his own) to the more insignificant ones, like reprimanding his brother for calling their mother by shouting, only to later do the same when the woman gets lost on the beach.

The entire film thus becomes the tale of a titanic effort to define a truth that is unquestionably valid yet elusive, impossible to verify because it is always multiple, differing depending on the perspectives adopted. An intimate, social, and literary truth that does not resolve unambiguously in the logic of definitions, but unfolds day by day in the total variety of personal experience.

After all, it’s an American fiction, which is slightly different from the erasure of identity alluded to in the novel, because it is experienced daily in the redefinition of individual lived experiences, due to which everyone becomes a character in an encompassing mechanism from which it is practically impossible to emancipate oneself and which perhaps it is advisable to accommodate.

Giampiero Frasca

Cineforum, February 28, 2024


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