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American Fiction 

Directed by Cord Jefferson (2023)


Review by Maame Blue


Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) sits across the table from Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) as they take a break from judging a prestigious new writing prize. Both are authors – Monk being the more seasoned of the two. Monk thinks little of Sintara’s debut novel – ‘We’s Lives In Da Ghetto’ which is making all the bestseller lists and has a lucrative movie deal behind it. He puts it to Sintara that her book panders to a white audience, reinforcing negative Black stereotypes:



Then it sounds like your issue is

with white people, Monk, not me.



That may be, but I also think that

I see the unrealized potential of

black people in this country.


Potential is what people see when

they think what’s in front of them

isn’t good enough.


Monk has never actually read Sintara’s book. He has also never had a bestseller. But he has written a parody of the kind of novel he accuses Sintara of authoring. ‘My Pafology’ is his book about living in the hood, featuring toxic masculinity, guns and trauma, all written in exaggerated Ebonics. Monk’s agent reluctantly agrees to send it out as ‘a joke’ and under a pen name, Stagg R. Leigh, but it is taken so seriously by the publishing industry that, for the first time, Monk experiences real success, real wealth and a real ability to take care of his ageing mother. 

Despite his new tax bracket, Monk admonishes anyone who praises his secretly authored book, including his new girlfriend Coraline (Erika Alexander). His guilt over putting the book out into the world is only amplified when his publishers agree to change the title to ‘F***’ just before publication, after Monk tries to test their patience by making this new expletive title a dealbreaker.

The irony is, of course, that the publishers were correct in thinking the book would be a success, if only because they made it so. They helped stoke the buzz around the book’s manufactured authenticity and rawness into a feeding frenzy. Monk’s point is both proven and disproven – people will buy what publishers tell them to buy, and the white gaze is not an arbiter of quality writing. 

Alongside this storyline, director Cord Jefferson takes a very considered approach to adapting Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure and dealing with its themes of family, grief, love and personhood. As with many film adaptations of beloved novels, character arcs are often reduced or streamlined to translate to the big screen and usually the depth of a story can be lost. However, with American Fiction, Percival Everett’s voice remains present as a film collaborator and Monk’s family members – the very people who shape his character in the novel – are kept alive and made fuller by the actors playing them. These include Tracee Ellis Ross’s no-nonsense portrayal of Monk’s physician sister Lisa, and Sterling K. Brown (changed from Bill to Cliff) as Monk’s older brother, recently out of the closet and emotionally devastated by his divorce and disconnection from his two children. The siblings’ lives collide in a wave of unfortunate circumstance, dropping Jeffrey Wright’s softly spoken, over analytical Monk into an emotional well of childhood connections, regrets and, at times, profound loss.

Thus, the film says less about the publishing industry and much more about being a Black writer. About wanting to tell other stories and always worrying about whether you are representing ‘the Black experience’: a judgement that is often bestowed upon you by whichever white-led publisher comes across your work. And regardless of how much or how little your real life reflects your art, your career as a writer, more often than not, is determined by those same judgements. 

American Fiction speaks directly to that experience and finds a way to make us laugh about it anyway.