Monday January 29, 2024
Movie Review: American Fiction (2023)
It’s been a while since I’ve identified with a movie character as much as I did with Jeffrey Wright’s Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the movie’s main theme, race, nor with Monk’s own racial attitudes. It has to do with everything else: west coast, separated from family, distant and not just geographically, a writer whose work nobody gives a shit about, and who is, on the wrong side of 55, increasingly grumpy and fed up with the world.
I felt seen.
OK, I’ll bring race into it, too. I am frustrated by all we can’t talk about, or won’t talk about, and it’s a list that feels like it’s growing rather than ebbing. I like that early scene in the college classroom when the white female student objects to the title of the short story they’re discussing, Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger,” which is written on the blackboard in big letters. She’s offended by that. She says so. And Monk sighs and says if he can get past it, she can.
And for that, and other missteps, he’s given a leave of absence from the college.
Here’s some of what I think is going on there. In order for the student to prove her racial innocence, she takes ownership of a word—meant to disparage him—away from him. She gets to own it and hide it away from everyone. And is that what’s been happening in the larger culture? We say “the n word,” rather than what the n word is, not to protect black people but to protect white people.
More offended than thou means more innocent than thou, which is the current game. And it’s getting old.
There are two forces pressing in on Monk in the early going: family and monetary needs back home in Boston; and the awful African-American books being elevated by white culture, such as “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto” by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), while his own novel, an adaptation of Aeschylus, is deemed “not black enough” and can’t find a publisher.
Some of this latter, to be honest, feels a little dated. The novel on which the movie is based, “Erasure” by Percival Everett, was published in 2001, and its author was apparently riffing off of 1990s books like “Push,” by Sapphire, which became the movie “Precious.” And is that still a thing? Also an adaptation of Aeschylus not finding a publisher isn’t exactly a racial problem; it’s wider. There’s a scene, too, where Monk goes into a bookstore, asks after his books, and an employee takes him to the “black” section. Incensed, since there’s nothing inherently black about his books except their author, he grabs an armful and redistributes them, over the hapless employee’s objections, to the classics section.
Thoughts from 2023-24:
- He should be happy there’s a bookstore
- He should be happy they have his books
- He should be happy they have enough of his books—three copies each of four different titles, it looks like—that he can grab an armful of them
That’s the dated thing. Or the ego thing. And the ego thing should’ve been tempered by now. He’s 55. He should know better.
I loved the early conversations with his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), a doctor at a clinic in Boston, who’s been doing the heavy lifting in family matters. Reminded me of my sister and I. They talk through serious issues, like what to do about their mom’s creeping dementia, and they joke and tease like siblings. She is so fun, in fact, and they have such good rapport, I wondered why Monk was so disengaged from his family. And then in the midst of drinks, in the midst of laughter, she has a heart attack and dies, and we’re crushed along with him. Not just because she was a great character but we worry for the movie. Wait, we’re left with just him? Who’s he going to play off of?
But that’s the point: Now he’s got to do the heavy lifting. There’s a line from Leonard Cohen’s “Night Comes On,” that I’ve been thinking about a lot since my brother died, and it fits both me and Monk: “I needed so much/To have nothing to touch/I’ve always been greedy that way.” Now he doesn’t have that remove.
And Mom (Leslie Uggams) is getting worse. The family has a longtime housekeeper, Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), but she’s getting up in years, too, and anyway she has a new suitor, and by the end of the movie she’ll be married. So Monk looks into nursing homes, trying to figure out what they can afford. It felt like things I’ve done. “Yeah, it’s $5,000+ per month, more for a single, and how do we afford that? And do they just keep taking her money until she doesn’t have any? And then it’s Medicaid? How does it work?”* All of those issues.
(*One way it works is that if it wasn’t for Medicaid, our family would be bankrupt. So thank you LBJ.)
Late one night, drinking, feeling the financial pressure, and tired of the Sintara Goldens of the world, he begins writing his own ghetto-ish story, recreated in his study, between Willy the Wonker (Keith David) and Van Go Jenkins (Okierete Onaodowan, Hercules Mulligan of “Hamilton” fame). It’s supposed to be a fuck you to the literary world, and that’s all it’s supposed to be, which is a little odd. He needs the money, and this is where the money is. Grab it. But I guess this is the way he gets to stay innocent. Because white publishers don’t get the joke; they love the book and want to give him a $750,000 advance. His attempts to sabotage all this goes nowhere.
Along the way there’s a budding romance with a neighbor above his paygrade, Coraline (Erika Alexander), and a budding relationship with his younger brother, Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), whose marriage ended when his wife found him sleeping with another man. He’s out now, and into drugs and drink (despite the six-pack abs), and all of that felt a bit ’90s, too. A Clifford today wouldn’t go the heterosexual marriage route. He’d know who he was.
Does the movie not go deep enough? That was my initial feeling. At one point, both Monk and Golden wind up on a prestigious literary committee that is attempting to diversify, and where he has to rule on his own book, which was published with a punny pseudonym: Stagg R. Leigh. The white people on the committee love it. Golden doesn’t, which surprises him. You can see him thinking, “Wait, I was just doing what you were doing. So why is yours valid and mine not?” They talk about it briefly but she doesn’t know the parameters of the discussion. She doesn’t know she’s talking with the author. That felt like a good, unexplored area: the divide between what she felt was good and not, and authentic and not, in black literature.
Everything spirals away from Monk—but successfully: the book is a hit, it gets picked up by Hollywood, but his self-disgust ruins his relationship with Coraline. Then the movie becomes a kind of satire of Hollywood’s racial attitudes rather than the literary world’s. We get a multiverse of endings. Should it be this? Should it be that? Felt like a cop out.
I like the scene at the end in the Hollywood backlot where Monk gets into the convertible and locks eyes with the black extra in slave gear, eating his lunch, who flashes him the sideways peace sign. Monk nods. There’s a lot in that nod. There’s a lot in Jeffrey Wright’s eyes there.
“American Fiction” was adapted and directed by Cord Jefferson, who also did the recent, great “Watchmen” series on HBO, an ur-superhero tale that introduced the 1921 Tulsa race massacre to most Americans. I look forward to more from him. I’d like him to go back to that opening scene, the white student offended, and drill the fuck down.