Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: American Fiction (2023)

Welcome to the Oscar Film Journal, here at Enuffa.com - eight Best Picture nominees down, two to go!

**Here there be spoilers**

Today's subject is Cord Jefferson's feature directorial debut American Fiction, starring Geoffrey Wright, Sterling K. Brown and a host of strong supporting actors.  Part family drama, part sociopolitical satire, American Fiction is about a struggling black writer who can't seem to sell any of his books to a publisher because they aren't "black" enough.  Thelonious "Monk" Ellison is an intellectual and a literature professor, and unfortunately the literary marketplace seems to only have room for black voices if they convey the usual stereotypes - poverty, broken families, violence and oppression.  Case in point a fellow novelist Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) publishes a novel called We's Lives in Da Ghetto to widespread critical acclaim and massive sales.  So Monk decides to write a similar novel under a pseudonym (Stagg R. Lee) as a middle finger to the publishing industry, a pandering, cliché-ridden downer called My Pafology, and much to his surprise and chagrin, his agent is able to sell the book for a whopping $750,000, plus a $4 million offer for the movie rights.  
All this sounds like a screwball comedy, but the film anchors its premise as more of a backdrop for the intimate personal story at its heart.  Monk is put on forced leave by his California university, and he returns home to Boston to reconnect with his family.  His sister Lisa, the primary caregiver to their ailing mother Agnes, dies suddenly from a heart attack, leaving Monk to carry the burden of finding Agnes (suffering from early onset Alzheimer's) an assisted living facility, and the funds to pay for it.  Monk's younger brother Cliff - recently divorced, newly outed as gay, and in full sex and drugs party-mode - is unfortunately ill-equipped to offer much assistance (Sterling K. Brown nearly steals the show in a layered performance of wry humor and self-pity).  Thus Monk has little choice but to get on board with his agent's proposal to accept the offer and play the character of Stagg R. Lee as an anonymous, prison-hardened fugitive (a marketing gimmick that only garners the novel more publicity).

Central to this film's success is the lead performance by Geoffrey Wright, playing Monk as a tight-lipped, emotionally repressed loner who, like his deceased father, seems incapable of letting other people in or even relating to them.  As his new love interest Coraline (a radiant Erika Alexander) says to him during an argument, "Not being able to relate to other people doesn't make you complex, it just makes you an asshole."  Wright's reticent, gravel-voiced demeanor here reminds me of a few other performances - his own film noir-esque turn as Jim Gordon in The Batman, Heath Ledger's painfully self-effacing performance in Brokeback Mountain where it felt like every word he allowed himself to speak was a chore, and Paul Giamatti's brilliant work in Sideways as a man seemingly bound and determined to be unhappy.  Despite Monk's inherent unlikability though, Wright and Jefferson manage to make this character very sympathetic, both because of his family plight and also because, well, he's not wrong.

While issues like poverty, oppression, violence and drugs are important topics to address, black literature shouldn't be limited to just those things.  As Monk points out, white audiences are attracted to these tropes in black-centric books and films because it allows them to assuage and/or sidestep their own guilt rather than facing it.  There's so little representation of middle- and upper-class black characters and situations because they somehow don't satisfy the superficial needs of the marketplace.  It's a complex conversation touched on late in the film when Monk confronts Sintara about her novel.

Going into this film I really didn't know what to expect, but it's a pretty superb blend of biting satire, poignant interpersonal drama, and some rather touching grown-up romance.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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