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Yeah, you think some bitch-ass college boy could come up with that shit?

Movie

American Fiction
(2023)

 

While it’s being touted as an awards-contender – including a Best Picture Oscar nomination – for its satirical take on media appetites for “blackness”, or rather, a certain stereotype of blackness, American Fiction is really a relationship drama masquerading – or selling itself – as a satire. It pretty much announces as much from the first scene, so the degree to which it’s merely an occasionally smile-raising accomplishment in the latter department is less of an issue than the degree to which it’s adequate at best in the former. As I see it, the only way the film might have raised its game would have been divining a bridge from one to the other, so puncturing the toothless sincerity of the (main) family plotline.

Which is to say, American Fiction’s a serviceable, smoothly watchable movie, when it should probably be something significantly more than that. It’s unconfrontational with its targets, and if its frequently witty, it’s never of a disposition to throw caution to the wind or lacerate. It’s a satire that is going to offend no one other than those who demand their satire razor sharp and merciless. Which is why it’s getting awards attention; were it seriously taking a hatchet to socially engineered progressivism, it would be given a wide berth.

Percival Everett’s novel Erasure was released in 2001, and the movie largely ports across the premise of its protagonist, English lit professor Thelonius “Monk” Ellison reacting against publishers’ lack of interest in his more intellectually poised works, which aren’t “black enough”, by writing an absurdly OTT parody of the “authentic”, “raw” black experience – of the ilk of Sapphire’s Push – titled My Pafology, under the pseudonym Stagg R Leigh. Monk is staggered that the novel is not only snapped up, but also that it commands a massive asking price ($750k); his attempts to sabotage this unwarranted embrace by making ridiculous demands (retitling it Fuck) are, to his even greater disbelief, for nought when they are agreed upon. 

Aside from the satirical conceit, the comic pose is an instantly recognisable and “cute” one; American Fiction is Tootsie, essentially, with Monk digging himself a fake-identity hole that can only, eventually, lead to him revealing his true self, dramatically and in a public forum. That it isn’t as sharp or as funny as Tootsie is partly because it also mostly wants to be a serious and ruminative relationship drama; juggling both may have worked on the page (Everett includes the entire novel My Pafology, whereas we observe just about one scene composed/enacted here, and while it’s always nice to see Keith David, it’s rather a waste of his inimitable presence).

The Nation suggested director Cord Jefferson “throws bombs at a media landscape that doesn’t exist, using a character who turns up his nose at a vein of Black literature that’s actually marginalized by the publishing industry”, which might be why American Fiction feels so safe in its content. On the one hand, it means the tropes are very familiar – so inviting broad audience embrace – on the other, this isn’t so different to any number of movies about writers, and writers embroiled in Hollywood, just with a some “black experience” sprinkings on top. When we reach the ending, or the multiple optional endings, as Monk sells “American Fiction” (or “Erasure”, I guess), the adjusted level of meta even feels rather stock, like a Xerox of The Player (which, despite all its acclaim, was guilty of a certain complacent smugness in its targets).

Even the chosen title is tempting fate in that regard, since it’s pretty much established that putting American in there is asking either for outright rejection or a degree of contempt for a generic, wishy-washy veneer. Can’t think of something better? Well then, be safe in the knowledge it could be worse. American Fiction frequently had me chuckling, and Wright is as reliable as he always is, but the picture rests on its laurels in targeting the (white) media holding the purse strings and driving appetites, be it the soulless suck-up publishers, the shallow and vacuous Hollywood producers (in the form of Adam Brody’s Wiley) or the literary establishment’s pseudishly affluent intellectuals (asked to be the panel of judges of the Literary Award, owing to their having become aware of a shortfall in the diversity stakes, Monk observes “Let me say first that I’m honoured you chose to think of me out of all the black writers you could go to for fear of being called racist”). Later, one of his co-judges unselfconsciously says of FuckI am thrilled to read a BIPOC man harmed by our carceral state”.

Such barbs, soft-tipped as they are, are evidently deserved, pointing up the tacit hypocrisy of an industry/ies tripping over itself to say the right thing and sell that thing. But they’re par for the course in woked-up Hollywood and expose that the movie itself is, far from railing against stereotypes and group-think, very much falling in line with the same: indeed, American Fiction has woke in its very DNA. Monk’s an angry male, while girlfriend Coraline (Erika Alexander) is the blameless victim of his verbal distress. His family tick boxes of prescribed values and sympathetic conditions. It would have frankly been shocking if his brother (Sterling K Brown’s Cliff) weren’t gay and his mother (Leslie Uggams) weren’t ailing.

Armond White’s review is as idiosyncratic as ever – I loved his simultaneous calling out of the wokefest that is the Damon Lindelof Watchmen (on which director Cord Jefferson was a writer and story editor) and reiteration of his own Snyder-bros credentials when he refers to the “abominable dystopic series Watchmen (never to be confused with Zach Snyder’s 2009 sci-fi spectacular Watchmen” – but he isn’t wrong when he charges “that Jefferson himself deals in stereotypes… It replaces black ghetto stereotypes with Obama-era black bourgeois self-consciousness”. White called the movie “uselessly ‘meta’”, and there is a prevailing sense that the picture does so – especially in its Hollywood passages, Plantation Annihilation et al – go through the motions.

I was struck by the writer’s creation scene – the one wasting Keith David – where Monk informs his character it’s time to deliver a “dumb melodramatic sob story where you highlight your broken intensity” and the manner in which this is mirrored – but sincerely – later when Cliff tells Monk he wished he’d had the opportunity to inform their father of his sexuality when he was still alive, because “At least he’d be rejecting the real me”. Jefferson entirely misses the opportunity for the pointedly meta here, and further compounds it with the absurdist, only-in-Hollywood inclusivity of the scene in which Cliff’s flamboyantly gay – aggressively so, even, given their lack of apparel – friends are greeted with the utmost, unconditional acceptance by the elder generation of Lorrain (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and Maynard (Raymond Anthony Thomas) upon their nuptials.

So there are lots of easy laughs here: “He said you took off as soon as you heard police sirens” comments agent Arthur (a rare non-annoying John Ortiz) of Monk bolting from a meeting with Wiley because he’s concerned an ambulance has come for his feasibly-stricken mother (thus, the act is the icing on the cake of Stagger’s authenticity). Lines like “I’m not offended that you’ve taken a lover, Cliff. I’m offended that you call it ‘taking a lover’”. Asked on the Kenya Dunston Show if Fuck is a true story, he replies “Not factually. But it’s the true story of what it’s like to be a black man in America like me”. Told by his agent that the FBI are looking into the invented Leigh and want the publishers to give him up, a bewildered Monk responds “Give who up?

But it largely amounts to very little. Even the character of Sinatra Golden (Issa Rae), whose We’s Lives in Da Ghetto inspires Monk to his literary jest, is rather left hanging, once Monk first finds himself agreeing with all her observations as a co-judge and then finds himself laying into her apparent ambivalence over her willingness to capitulate to a market place that “can’t envisage us without a boot on our neck?American Fiction establishes her as an equal, in terms of insight, but then pulls back. As The Nation asks “What does she really think and feel? Better yet, what does she represent? Jefferson positions Golden and her book as Monk’s foil, without imbuing her with any interiority or purpose”.

American Fiction is also victim of aggrandising its protagonist in a very Hollywood manner, something that doesn’t fit with any aspirations to bite. His mother tells this singular, irate, insightful hero, “Geniuses are lonely because they can’t connect with the rest of us”, conferring on Monk suffering nobility but in a tell-rather-than-show sense. 

Indeed, I found myself comparing the protagonists of American Fiction and Dream Scenario – simply because I viewed them on consecutive nights – whereby both feel life has failed to give them the recognition they deserve while others who do not have won the spotlight. And then both find themselves dissatisfied with the trick fame pulls on them – of fame for something they don’t want to be famous for, as opposed to recognition of their real intellectual merit. Again, this is a scenario Tootsie utilised to great popular effect, albeit these two pictures are very much indies (and, in Dream Scenario’s case, an indie that, true to Ari Aster form, actively invites rejection). They illustrate that you can only go so far with a formula before you need to deliver in your own right. Tootsie achieved that through its dedication to eking out antic layers of comedy of identity. American Fiction needed to be as determined in its satirical scope.

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