“Centering voices of color” or “incorporating more diverse voices” have become commonplace corporate speak these days. American Fiction, the directorial debut of Cord Jefferson (The Good Place, Watchmen), brings satire to this ever-present conversation. Anchored by a delightful Jeffrey Wright performance, the film uses comedy to ask difficult questions about entertainment’s efforts to diversify.
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a pretentious novelist and academic, successful and renowned in his field despite not publishing for many years. Frustrated that his scholarly topics seem unsellable compared to stereotypical trauma-porn about people of color, he gets drunk one night and writes an over-the-top fake novel full of gangsters, violence, and African American Vernacular English. He sends it in under a pen name as a joke but is taken by surprise when he gets huge offers to publish it. Will he still look down from his moral high ground or take the cash?
Adapted from Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, American Fiction has a specificity that makes it incredibly relatable for people from diverse backgrounds. As the call for different voices has intensified, it’s been clear that entertainment about poverty and violence seem to dominate the landscape. But not every person of color comes from poverty, or has parents that immigrated to America for a better life. Plenty have been here for generations and plenty are born into upper-middle-class or upper-class families. It’s easy to understand Monk’s frustration with this media and the way white people can make assumptions from only consuming this type of content.
As Monk’s fake author life runs in tandem with his real complicated family life, Jefferson proves that you can make a family drama about people of color just as relatable as the well-worn white family drama. That’s in part due to excellent performances from Tracee Ellis Ross and Sterling K. Brown as his siblings as well as Myra Lucretia Taylor as his childhood caretaker and Leslie Uggams as his mother, Agnes. While the comedy of American Fiction comes from selling an outrageous book under a pen name, the heart of it resides in figuring out his family life and dealing with universal issues like strained sibling relationships, aging parents, and grappling as an adult with your dysfunctional upbringing.
American Fiction asks a lot of questions about race, family, love, and career. It asks so many questions that it can feel a bit cluttered, picking up a thread just to quickly drop it and pivot to another. It comes at the audience so fast that it can be difficult to keep up. Still, the heart of the film remains effective enough to forgive its tangents.
In many ways, this film feels like the natural evolution of the “more diverse voices” call to action. People of color have seen enough gang/slavery/poverty movies about themselves. Jefferson reflects a generation that’s ready to see itself on screen, even if that means retreading film genres we’ve seen plenty of times from white directors. It’s the nuanced experience of a person of color that makes that retreading into a new product not seen before. Hopefully American Fiction inspires others to create such films, just as Everett’s novel did for Jefferson.