American Fiction is Intellectually Amusing

Charlie von Peterffy ‘25 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

American Fiction is a subtle, sincere slice of fiction that plays out more like a deft novel than a playful film. A soothing performance from Jeffrey Wright (he plays Thelonious “Monk” Ellison) with a poignant script and a compelling undertone of familial trauma and tension make this a resounding—if occasionally vague—film about letting people into your life. It also incorporates a clever literary tool at the end that wraps everything up creatively. It feels too arbitrary at points, but it is driven solidly by Wright and the film’s intelligent angle.

The film follows Monk, a well-established novelist fed up with literary discriminatory practices in the U.S. that rely on racist tropes and stereotypes to turn a profit. Enraged, he writes an overtly stereotypical story titled “Fuck” under a pen name and sends it to publishers. Instead of getting laughably rejected as expected, important publishers, predominantly owned by white people, want the rights. The film delves into the trickiness of Wright’s position as his persona gets him into trouble with the U.S. government. It also illustrates how he reinforces (or negates, according to some colleagues) these tropes while dealing with the death of his sister, a struggling family, finding love, and relating to other people. He must find his place in the world, uncomplicate the issues of his false identity, and repair family problems before everything falls apart.

The story is generally lighthearted and unpredictable, even in its grave moments. The film’s complexities are obvious, but the intrigue comes from how the characters react. Because of this character dependence, everything is written and produced with a sharp eye for how the characters find importance in detail and meaning. Sometimes, the dialogue is too vague, especially when Monk goes on to more extended monologues, but these moments are relatively brief in an otherwise subtle character study. And its clever ending, borrowing from literary tools, makes it sharp and witty (no spoilers here though!).

The cast and characters are phenomenal. Wright grounds himself in the self-deprecation of his hyper-intelligent character, presenting Monk as a lonely genius with deep-rooted social flaws. Clifford “Cliff” Ellison (Sterling K. Brown), Monk’s sole surviving brother, is swindlingly charismatic but sturdy in his brute honesty toward his brother’s attitude. Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) is a fierce devil’s advocate, providing an interesting counterpart to the protagonist. Coraline (Erika Alexander) is also a stabilizing critic in Monk’s life, but she feels much more sidelined than the rest of the ensemble. 

The visuals, sounds, and general production design are also solid. Nothing creatively distinct, but it’s colorful, well-shot, and sweetly composed. The filmmakers get playful, visually emphasizing the ambiguity of its ending, which strengthens the literary fictional devices constantly deployed throughout. The sounds and music are fitting, too, inserting educated integrity into most scenes through classic jazz ensembles and smooth piano showcases with no narrative disruption. It’s nice on the eyes and soft on the ears.

American Fiction is an astute example of literary adaptation that goes beyond pure narrative mirroring. It may feel hammy because of some bloated lines or unfocused character interactions, but it mostly simmers with intellectually literary and cinematic wit. The film will likely satisfy fans of classic fiction cinema or literary fiction despite its flaws.

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