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Review: American Fiction. How to awake the woke with humour

  • Release year: 2023
  • Director: Cord Jefferson.
  • Producers: Cord Jefferson, Jermaine Johnson, Nikos Karamigios and Ben LeClair.
  • Screenplay by: Cord Jefferson.
  • Cinematographer: Cristina Dunlap.
  • Music by: Laura Karpman.

Synopsis: a black novelist, fed up with the success of overused tropes to represent the African-American culture. He writes a satirical book that exaggerates these without an inkling of what it may become.

Shotgun Commentary: hilarious film that breaks with the stereotypes and shows how racism prevails in “woke” societies.

Erika Alexander stars as Coraline and Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s AMERICAN FICTION. An Orion Pictures Release. Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Review

American Fiction makes clear its intentions from the first scene. The obvious commentary on the ignorance of the “politically correct police” and how they take offence to surreal levels is both hilarious and frustrating in its faithfulness to reality. In one moment, the film states its purpose and importance. It is a powerful beginning that becomes the first stepping stone of a magnificent journey into one aspect of the black communities’ reality in the US.

Past the trope

The film shows a different story of African-American culture, far from the ones featuring slaves, gangs, rappers and other clichés. While all of these narratives are also part of reality, it is reductionist to think that there is no more to a whole community than that. This all seems like a matter of logic. However, the media only represents black people in America in the contexts mentioned. This makes the plot of American Fiction a fascinating subject, especially for non-Americans who are not that versed in US history and its current functioning.

The movie brings forth two main issues that stand out from the rest: cultural laziness and economic profit.

Lazy guilt

Culturally, white people don’t care about Black culture. Monk (Jeffrey Wright) voices this clearly, “white people think they want the truth, but they don’t. They just want to feel absolved”. They confuse being “woke” with being pardoned. This leads to overcompensating by reducing black people to their colour and the stereotypes attached to them, and protecting those notions like parents would with a baby, assuming that they are incapable of thinking for themselves.

Sterling K. Brown star as Cliff in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s AMERICAN FICTION. An Orion Pictures Release. Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

This form of racism is terribly dangerous. It comes from the idea that white people know better and are helping, but black people just don’t understand. This invalidation of black people’s rationalisation and opinion makes it almost impossible for white people to backtrack and rethink their statements when they are called out on them.

Additionally, it is born from guilt over the past and not a wish to change the present for a better future. The need to feel better about themselves, but with minimum effort possible, is what corporations prey on.

Your guilt, my wealth

A clear example of this is 2023, when all the companies suddenly posted about their black workers or began collaborating with black artists as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. These actions are positive, but answer to economic goals, not social.

White people felt guilty, so they bought things from those companies to show them to everyone and prove their wokeness, but most of those companies are still governed by white males, so ultimately those campaigns were mostly just a different way to make the same men richer.

In American Fiction, the corporations targeted are editorial companies, the ones in charge of pushing specific narratives to the public. The exploitation of Black trauma feeds the audience a very specific and reductionist idea of what Black culture is. The repetitive use of words like raw, visceral or brave indoctrinates readers to think that those lives are all there is and that by reading these painful and violent stories about them, they are absolved from their part in creating that situation. They have suffered reading about pain, and now they are purified.

The extension of the strings

The unfairness of this publishing ethos is discussed during the most compelling conversation of the film. The discussion happens between Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), a writer of Black exploitation stories, and Monk.

Issa Rae stars as Sintara Golden and Nicole Kempskie as Sintara’s moderator in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s AMERICAN FICTION. An Orion Pictures. Release Photo credit: Courtesy of ORION Pictures Inc. © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The chat begins with Monk trying to understand what, in Sintara’s eyes, differentiates her book from other works of Black culture exploitation. Eventually, Sintara gets defensive and demands to know why Monk is so against books that show that part of the African-American society, to which Monk states, “I see the unrealised potential of black people in this country”. To this, Sintara replies that “potential is what people see when they think what’s in front of them isn’t good enough”.

This conversation is worth pausing over. Sintara acts like Monk is disrespecting that piece of Black culture when, in reality, it is her who devalues it by perpetuating the cliché as a universal truth. It is fascinating to see an example of how powerful people control the narrative of any subject to get their way, changing ideologies, mentalities and principles with money and lies hidden behind truths. Sinatra truly believes that she is helping to shine a light on her culture, and she is in a way, but remains blind to the damage that she is also causing. The continuous collision of ideas and principles, spiced up with humour, makes American Fiction a unique and insightful piece.

Only good vibes

In addition to the textual content, the plot is accompanied by a gorgeous score that complements the emotional turns of the events without overpowering the actions. The combination of jazz with classical music creates a composition full of personality that reflects the spirit of the movie wonderfully. Both music and aesthetics create a very enjoyable atmosphere that serves as a buffer for the most intense moments of the feature.

A man before his time

Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison is a man with a serious demeanour that comes from an upper-middle class family. He is an educated person that writes complex and well-researched novels for a living. It is not the most compelling of personalities, yet Wright delivers a hilarious performance. His talent transforms a regular, grumpy and borderline boring person into a hyper-charismatic, sarcastic character.

Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s AMERICAN FICTION. An Orion Pictures Release. Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Monk breaks away from all clichés attached to African-American characters, thus portraying a reality seldom represented but whose display in the media is necessary to truly understand the complexity of the culture he comes from. Wright is the perfect choice due to his varied range and his usual choice of characters: calm, smart and quiet. Monk is all this and then some, and his commentary on the manipulation by white corporations of “Black” content is simply superb thanks to Wright’s flawless performance.

You’re only as good as your sidekick

Sterling K. Brown plays Clifford Ellison, Monk’s brother. He is a family man that comes out of the closet during his middle age, losing his wife and kids in the process. It is always hard to come out in a society that will most likely judge and hate you, but it is even harder when your own family does so.

Clifford represents a huge amount of queer people whose lives are completely destroyed just by being who they are. Like a lot of these people, he turns to drugs and builds a huge wall of self-deprecating humour and carelessness to avoid being hurt again.

Brown embodies Clifford beautifully. He makes his pain clearly visible under the facade of superiority complex and narcissism, which makes him a likeable character from minute one. Clifford is complex and flawed but, above all, he just wants to be accepted and loved for who he is. Brown gives life to a crucial issue that is not generally discussed in terms of black communities: the abuse and rejection of queer people.

Advice to take from this movie:

  • No one is interested in how white people feel about black people’s struggles. Shut up and just try to be a good person.
  • It is important to have a heart-to-heart with your family from time to time.
  • If you yell at your girlfriend and push her away, don’t expect her to forgive you. It is not her responsibility to fix you.
Tracee Ellis Ross stars as Lisa and Leslie Uggams as her mother Agnes in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s AMERICAN FICTION. An Orion Pictures Release. Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

What’s your take? Have you watched American Fiction yet? What do you think of it? Don’t hesitate to let me know your thoughts in the comments section below, or leave a message in my contact page! For more reviews and cinema-related articles, check out the rest of my blog! 😀

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