Cord Jefferson’s filmmaking debut is a piercing adaptation of Percival Everett’s award-winning novel
Published in 2001, Percival Everett’s sharp satire Erasure stands out among other books I’ve read. Literature professor and author Monk is fed up with the institutional racism he’s experienced within the spheres of academia and publishing. He writes a fictional work full of stereotype as a joke, under a pseudonym… then it becomes a bestseller. In 2023, former Gawker writer Cord Jefferson adapts and directs Everett’s novel for the screen as American Fiction (Everett is a producer).
The screenplay and performances drip with wit. Jeffrey Wright leads the cast as Monk, who has a bitter sense of humor, even sardonic at times. His return to Massachusetts after being placed on a forced leave from his West Coast school finds him immediately tossed into the chaos of caring for a mother with dementia (Leslie Uggams). Tracee Ellis Ross is his stressed sister Lisa, who passes on new information to Monk about their deceased dad. Younger brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), recently out as gay to his family, is little help with the minutia involved in getting their mother moved into a facility.
Is it any wonder Monk resorts to an amusing writing exercise as stress release? Celebrated performer Keith David cameos to act out the clichéd story Monk writes, adding an additional layer of hilarity. As Monk’s agent Arthur (John Ortiz) tells his client, unsure of whether the publishing companies will get the joke: “White people think they want the truth, but they don’t. They just want to feel absolved.”
This is a central theme of the work. Even as white viewers may see reflections of their own microaggressions and biases in characters and scenes depicted here, the film is never preachy or overly heavy on moments of cringe. There’s just enough cringe: you get the joke or reference, recognize the racist stereotype involved, and laugh at the film (and yourself). After Stagg R. Lee is chosen as the pseudonym, Arthur adds another element to the author bio: Lee is a fugitive from the law.
Jefferson’s film is an imaginative blend of biting wit, anger and family friction, with memorable performances from Wright and Brown. The actors spark off each other, making the family connection utterly believable. American Fiction also has one of the best film scores I’ve heard this year; the jazzy music composed by Laura Karpman adds to the humor, perfectly accompanying the onscreen dissonance.
As the tension of the film builds up to denouement — will Monk’s secret come out? — a few twists are tossed in. This unexpected move is surprising and inspired, but makes sense for this film with its meta tendencies. Just like Monk refuses for his writing to be limited to a genre, so does American Fiction. In this season of movies that take themselves too seriously, Jefferson’s film takes on serious topics with creativity and — dare I say it — fun.
American Fiction opens in Austin theaters on Friday, December 15.