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American Fiction (2023) Review

I was particularly excited to see Cord Jefferson’s adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel, Erasure, because (even though I never mention it on this blog) I’m a fiction writer. Having published and recently gotten my MFA, I was interested to see how Jefferson adapted this book about writing; and became even more excited after speaking with him on the red carpet at the Austin Film Festival. The movie follows a frustrated novelist-professor who jokingly writes a harshly stereotypical ‘black book’ in a spiteful fit, only for the novel to be published to wide acclaim. I’m happy to report it’s as smartly funny as the trailer promises. With stellar acting and a strong script, it’s no wonder this biting satire of the publishing world won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Something that really stood out to me about this film was how well it was written, which is an odd thing to say since the director admits “2/3, if not more, of the movie is different than the book.” Though he’s well-known for adaptations, co-writing the Emmy-winning Watchmen series, Jefferson said this project came with some unique challenges. “I’d never adapted something on my own before,” he told me, “and I needed to streamline this very dense and big book into something under two hours.” Despite these concerns, it doesn’t feel like anything’s missing. Perhaps that speaks to how great of a job Jefferson did at prioritizing what makes the book so effective. “If you’re cutting out a lot of stuff it can be easy to lose the intentionality and lose the essence of what made the book great in the first place. It’s more about keeping the strengths of the novel while also making a movie that’s under 2 hours and didn’t cost fifty million dollars.” One instance where this is done particularly well is when Monk is working on his ‘black book,’ and the characters he’s creating surround his desk, correcting themselves as he re-writes their dialogue in real time. I’ve never seen the writing process physicalized so well, and found it to be a great way of expressing how maddening and immersive the art of fiction can be. But even the best scripts can’t make up for a lackluster cast; luckily Jefferson and co. didn’t have any issues in that department.

I’m convinced Jeffery Wright at least deserves a Best Actor nomination, if not a win. Constantly flipping from one side of the emotional spectrum to the other, he makes Monk’s journey as hilarious as it is heartrending. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a writer’s inner life portrayed so well onscreen. His character is a fascinating one, saying things like “I don’t believe in race” and looking down on authors who center it in their work. Despite comments like these, we get the sense that Monk isn’t as oblivious as he wants to believe when talking about white readers, saying things like “they think they want the truth, but they just want to be absolved.” The movie also does a great job at complicating what it means for Monk to constantly be paranoid about fulfilling stereotypes, implying it stems from a kind of internalized racism. The supporting cast is just as good, with Sterling K. Brown playing Monk’s brother, Clifford, who’s starting to come to terms with the fact that he’s gay while dealing with the fallout. Things take a wild turn when these two brothers come together during such a tumultuous time in their lives to grieve for their sister and care for their mother, each finding new love amidst so much loss. The wonderful editing sets a strong pace, and despite all the growth and change these characters undergo in the movie, it never feels rushed or unearned. By the end, we’re so lost in the screen that the film could’ve been ten hours for all I care.

            Writing is hard enough as it is; but when you’re a nonwhite writer in an industry that has such myopic views of what it means to be a person of color, it can be damn near soul crushing. Jefferson’s film does a great job of showing that despite this widespread ignorance, the nuanced tapestry of life, with its unbelievable highs and lows, is what all art must seek to capture. Every community is so full of beautiful, human stories that must be told, and I’m glad he got to tell this one. American Fiction hits theaters this week, and I hope you get the chance to see it. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!

 

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