“Potential is what people see when what’s in front of them isn’t good enough.”
There’s a scene early on in American Fiction where Jeffrey Wright’s character Monk sees his class interrupted by a student who has a problem with the fact that they are covering a work by Flannery O’Connor that contains a racial slur in the title. The student says she finds the word offensive to which Monk tells her that they are looking at it concerning the work of literature they are studying. When the student says it doesn’t matter because the word makes her uncomfortable, Monk tells her that if he can get over it, she can too. Eventually, the camera cuts to the student leaving the class in tears. The scene gives us a great introduction to the character of Monk, as well as the kind of topical ideas American Fiction is setting him up to tackle. What the audience doesn’t know is that American Fiction will force Monk to tackle not just the current landscape, but just how much a part of it he is.
In American Fiction, Wright plays Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, a revered writer whose literary career has hit an impasse. Monk can’t get his latest novel published and he finds himself fed up with the current brand of black writers who are receiving praise for books which he feels plays into the stereotypes of black America. Out of frustration, Monk writes a novel under a pseudonym that’s filled with the kinds of characters and tropes he despises, only to have it be a surprise success. At the same time, he’s forced to confront the issues he has with his family, including sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), mom Agnes (Leslie Uggams), and brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown).
It’s easy to feel Monk’s struggle with the black literary scene around him; a struggle which only grows when he finds himself becoming a part of it in a way he hadn’t anticipated. Monk has spent ages proudly condemning those who conform to stereotypes, both creatively and culturally, as well as those who heap praise on them for their supposed authenticity. His disdain for works that embrace stories from the ghetto and characters whom Monk feels are not well-spoken angers him the more celebrated they become. It’s more than clear that he resents that side of black America, especially since he’s spent so much of his life proving that there’s another side to the culture. Yet when he is confronted with the opportunity to compromise and sell out, he finds himself both incensed and flabbergasted. Monk does eventually agree to let the novel be published under absurd conditions, all of which his publishers remarkably agree to. The more outrageous his unexpected success becomes, the more believable American Fiction feels as both character and film look at these types of works and question: Is it pandering to write such stories, or is it exposing something that some, like Monk, would prefer to keep hidden?
The flip side of American Fiction takes Monk back to Massachusetts where he must deal with his somewhat dysfunctional family. For a while, it feels as if the film wastes too much time on his relationship with the people from his past. Yet these scenes eventually prove instrumental when it comes to exploring who Monk was before we met him and do manage to give strong motivations to his actions. It’s here where we meet the real Monk; who he was and how it shaped him as a writer. In seeing him trying to hold it together amid Agnes’ dementia and Cliff’s somewhat hedonistic lifestyle, we watch Monk cling to his pretenses as armor, making sure he doesn’t sacrifice too much of himself to his family at this stage of his life. Eventually, Monk realizes (as we all do at some point) that he’s living a novel of his own, one over which he has very little authorship over. What kind of novel is he living? What kind was he living before? The answers to these will differ according to each audience member who will walk into American Fiction with their own relationship to the culture they come from. How much they allow themselves to be defined by that culture is what will either allow them to identify with Monk, or turn away from him altogether.
We’ve all waited for Wright to have a role that allows him this much room and freedom to shine, which he undoubtedly does. For years the actor has made a career playing characters on the sidelines which usually come in, make an indelible impression, and then sadly depart. American Fiction is the role that was made for Wright, drawing on his emotional depth, hypnotic timbre, and presence which has been his calling card for decades. Quite simply, it’s one of the most stunning performances of the year. The actor is in good company here, allowing his fellow players to share the spotlight with some especially good work coming from Brown, Uggams, Ross, and Erika Alexander as Coraline, Monk’s love interest.
If the title American Fiction might not be the most flashy for a movie whose aims are high and bold, it’s certainly one of the most provocative. Monk’s story in many ways is the story of a part of America that deals with a very specific social experience. It’s the story of someone who has used where they’ve come from to fashion themselves into an image and persona that represents the person they want to be, rather than who society assumes they already are. There’s a continuous struggle between race, culture, and class within oneself that exists in virtually every moment, regardless of whether or not it’s the subject of the scene, and to the movie’s credit, its direct comments on such themes are dealt with in actions rather than through a string of monologues. American Fiction will not be the film many think it will be going into it. But it’s one that takes a lot of the questions that many of us have avoided for so long and dares to answer them.