American Fiction is a skewering of that literary climate and a rambling, funny-sad narrative about Monk’s struggle to connect with his family as it begins to fall apart. (There’s also a love interest, played sweetly by Erika Alexander.) It’s an old-fashioned movie in a way, a coming-home film with a particular topic on its mind. There’s an air of James L. Brooks wafting through American Fiction, an echo of that filmmaker’s witty and discursive approach to matters of the brain and of the heart.
Yet the film’s satire and its rumpled humanism don’t always agree. The arch high comedy of Monk’s publishing misadventures break the spell of the film’s more grounded domestic passages. Jefferson, an Emmy-winning writer making a promising directorial debut, blends these two modes together where he can, but the seams are a little rough to the touch.
Perhaps one cause of that discordance is that Everett’s novel was published in 2001 as a parodic rebuke of novels like Push (later adapted into the award-winning film Precious), which Everett saw as a prime example of the urban misery porn that Black writers were being railroaded into writing by market demand. That trope has certainly not died out, but Everett’s indictment of it perhaps had more pertinent bite in its own day. White culture’s appetite for Black stories has not necessarily improved since then, but it has evolved into new complications.
Jefferson attempts to update the references to converse with the recently emergent shapes of smarmy white interest—laden with academic terms learned online and often misunderstood, neurotically self-conscious and arrogantly heedless at once—but he’s still tethered to the specificity of Everett’s My Pafology, its particular condemnation of a style that is no longer exactly de rigueur. American Fiction, a sharp and clever film, could be all the more so if it felt better connected to the present tense. As is, the reflection is a bit warped; contemporary subtleties are missing.
Still, American Fiction is an inviting ramble of a film, staged with formal confidence (Laura Karpman’s alternately jazzy and melancholy score is a highlight) and deftly acted. What a thrill it is to see Wright, such a reliable journeyman character actor, tuck into a lead role like this. He keenly illustrates Monk’s spikiness and his warmth, his correctness and his blustery, misguided pretension. Monk might say of himself that he is the type of character Black actors rarely get to play on screen because they are too busy pretending to get shot by the police or being otherwise distressed—and it’s true that even in our supposedly more inclusive media age, Black stories are too often limited to sagas of suffering. American Fiction suggests not a replacement to those stories but an added alternative, an expansion of Black experience depicted on film.