Early on in American Fiction, a deceptively biting and warmly funny new satire, a writer (played by Jeffrey Wright in a career-crowning performance) sneaks into a book fair event celebrating the hot new book of the season. His eyebrows arch at the title: We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.
Wright’s character, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, is a biased observer. His last few books have flopped, hard, and he’s having trouble selling his most recent novel to anyone. His erudite, classically inflected books are unfashionable in an industry craving the next American Dirt, minus the scandal.
Monk, who grew up in a wealthy family of doctors, says he doesn’t see race. His critics still want him to write “Blacker” books. What, they demand, does his reworking of Aeschylus’s The Persians have to do with the African American experience?
Ready and willing to give the critics what they want is Sintara Golden (a terrific Issa Rae), a former publishing assistant who tells her audience that she wrote We’s Lives in Da Ghetto because representation matters. Monk thinks Sintara’s work is craven and phony, playing into the worst stereotypes about Black life. Still, he can’t deny it makes money.
So one night, giggly with whiskey and in need of funds to care for his ailing mother, Monk sits down at his laptop and types out a book full of all the tropes he says he hates and he knows white people love: a story of drugs, deadbeat fathers, and gang shootings, written in tortured AAVE. He titles it My Pafology and submits it to his agent as performance art.
My Pafology sells immediately, of course, for more money than any of Monk’s “real” books did. Which means in order to get access to the money he needs, Monk finds himself in disguise as a debut author and wanted fugitive going by the alias Stagg R. Leigh. Blinking without his owlish professorial glasses, Monk tries his best to deadpan his way through meetings with oily industry types who fall all over themselves to assure him that his book is deeply, deeply important — even when he demands they change the title to Fuck.
American Fiction is based on Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, written in 2001, which critics read at the time as an extended satire on Sapphire and her mega-bestseller of Black trauma, Push. Now, 22 years later, publishing is still so infatuated with sentimental stories of the hard lives of poor people and queer people and people of color that the only part of Monk’s dark joke that rings false is the AAVE. Today’s trauma narratives are generally written lyrically.
Debut director Cord Jefferson handles the satire of this premise with a feather-light touch. In Jefferson’s hands, it’s clear that Monk has a point when he rails about the blind spots of the publishing industry. It’s also clear that Monk is smug and self-righteous, a bit of a bore. Even his agent rolls his eyes at Monk’s rants.
Despite his grumpy contrarianism, Monk is an intensely lovable character. In part, that’s thanks to Wright’s gleeful, nuanced performance; in part, it’s because Jefferson shows us all of who Monk is.
As the film opens, Monk is returning to his family home in Boston on a forced leave of absence from his West Coast university job. At home, Monk curves his broad shoulders in and lightens the register of his plummy voice. He’s the nerd, the egghead who never made it as a doctor like his siblings did, the contrarian who’s not really sure how to keep in touch with his family and so pretends he doesn’t want to.
Still, when Monk sits down with his siblings (Tracee Ellis Ross, warm and acerbic, and Sterling K. Brown in a live-wire performance), you can see him reaching unsteadily for a half-remembered connection. When he begins to court his neighbor Coraline (the luminous Erika Alexander), he does so with a beautiful hesitancy, as though he’s forgotten the concept of flirting.
What makes Monk feel most human, though, is how willfully he deceives himself. He is blind to his father’s infidelities and his siblings’ personal problems. He pretends My Pafology is nothing but a joke, but it’s in this book, the one he considers to be most disposable and absurd, that he embeds his real feelings of rage and betrayal about his father.
In the film’s strongest scene, Monk confronts Sintara about We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. He asks her if she isn’t ashamed to have written something so fake and trashy.
Sintara demurs. She based her book on hours of research, she tells him. Some of the narrative is drawn directly from her interview transcripts. And anyway, she says, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving the market what it wants.”
Monk’s smug certainty falters. It’s crucial for his worldview, for the nihilistic joke of My Pafology, for everything that he’s doing, that he’s able to see Sintara as a hack. If it turns out that she’s just as savvy and intelligent as he is — well, what does he do then?
It’s a predicament that is, like Monk himself, what Coraline calls “funny. Sad funny.” Exactly.
American Fiction is playing in now in theaters.
Correction, December 18, 9:55 am ET: A previous version of this story misspelled the first name of the character Sintara Golden.