Thursday, July 18, 2024

Cord Jefferson works warmth and humor into this satire of race and identity based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure.” The film centers on African American writer Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) who, much like Nicolas Cage’s academic in “Dream Scenario,” can no longer conjure up a note of relevance. No one wants to publish his latest, and instead implore him for something more “authentic.” The more concrete reality facing Monk is that his father has just died and his mother (played by the great Leslie Uggams) is struggling with memory challenges and needs full-time care, so after the ashes are spread seaside and mom has been situated, Monk holes up in the family harborside cottage just south of Boston (it’s not named, but Scituate) and out of an act of anger, pens a jokey “street lit” novel called “My Pafology.” The book becomes an instant hit – mostly with white audiences, which is a deft skewering throughout. As Monk’s agent (John Ortiz, working the part with the perfect balance of smarm and charm) puts it, “White people think they want the truth, but they just want to feel absolved.”

To seal the deal – and get the big bucks – Monk reluctantly takes on the nom de plume of Stagg R. Leigh, a made-up name for a dreamed-up street persona, who, as an on-the-fly bio has it, did time, is evading authorities and needs to maintain faceless anonymity because of alleged other transgressions against society. Many assume murder and more. With pained disdain Monk rolls his eyes whenever having to do such performative street-talk (think a watered down Mr. T), and bristles when another Black author (Issa Rae), who pulled a similar stunt with her smash success “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” endorses the book not knowing Monk is the author. The lawyer across the street (Erika Alexander, warm and resolute) with whom Monk has begun a simmering romance, not knowing he’s the pen behind the prose, defends the book when he challenges her on the notion that such books do nothing but pigeonhole and restrain Black people and the Black experience. 

Ultimately Hollywood comes a knocking, the fourth wall gets shifted and the delicate, darkly funny tenor of the farce gets turned up a few too many notches for its own good. “American Fiction” marks Jefferson’s directorial debut after producing and writing for the hit series “Master of None” and the acrid HBO fantasy tasking the mainstream on race, “Watchmen.” His true asset here is the ever dutiful Wright (“Shaft,” “The French Dispatch”) who effortlessly shifts emotive states while maintaining an overriding pallor of weariness. He carries the film as much as his character carries his family and the bigger struggle to break racial barriers. The rest of the ensemble is equally on point, including Ortiz, Uggums and Sterling K. Brown, fiery and scene-stealing as Monk’s less dutiful, self-centered brother who’s just come out, not only adding to Monk’s burdens by not helping with the logistics of family transitions but by saddling him with the realities of “how it is” and dishing unnerving reveals about dad. “American Fiction” is a humorous and powerful pontification on race, reckoning and perceived reality – a hook with a barb that could have been plunged a little deeper.

Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.