American Fiction (Cord Jefferson, 2023, USA)

American Fiction is the latest entry into the 2024 awards season, receiving nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. The film was directed and written by Cord Jefferson, who started his career as a journalist but transitioned into comedy writing for TV. This is his first feature film. The film is based on a 2001 play by Percival Everett called Erasure. Supposedly the play is much more experimental both in structure and form than the film. Jefferson's film follows more or less a traditional narrative structure, until the ending, which breaks the narrative world of the film for the first time.

The film focuses on Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a black upper-middle-class writer who is tired of having his writing pigeonholed into black fiction. As a fluke, he decides to write a stereotypical black fiction book called My Pafology. The book becomes a runaway best seller, helping Monk deal with his ailing mother (she has Alzheimer's). While the film has been advertised as a satire in the vein of Spike Lee's Bamboozled, it is mostly a domestic drama surrounding Monk's relationship with his two doctor siblings, his ailing mother, and his relationship with a new woman in their Massachusetts neighborhood.

While this family drama is OK, the satire itself is rather undercooked and stale. There are some interesting conversations to be had here, but the whole scenario is so implausible, and rendered in such a cartoonish manner, that it undercuts the whole thing. Luckily the performances are mostly solid, particularly Jeffrey Wright. Unfortunately, the whole film is rather tonally offputting and strange. Perhaps the material worked better in the form of the play, but it does not translate well into the screen adaptation. The cast does the best with the underwhelming material they've been given in this case.



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