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American Fiction ★★★★★



Released: 2nd February 2024 (UK)

Director: Cord Jefferson

Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross

Reviewed By Garry Arnot

Off the back of a career in journalism, Cord Jefferson moved into television writing around a decade ago and is now making his directorial debut in cinema. Comedy drama American Fiction is based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, and follows disgruntled novelist Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) who works as a college professor in LA.

Monk’s works are academically and critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful, and his frustration leads to him making unprofessional remarks with his students in class. When he’s told to take temporary leave, he visits his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) and their elderly mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) in his hometown of Boston. After a few drinks one night, he writes an offensively clichéd book as a spiteful response to the type of poverty-stricken tales being marketed as ‘the Black experience’, and what begins as a joke born out of bitterness takes an expected turn.

As is often the case with first time filmmakers, there are a lot of ideas at play throughout the piece. Monk’s family drama alone is more than enough to serve as the central plot of any film, but Jefferson skilfully weaves it into his satirical social commentary around the literary space and the complexities that can come with being a black artist in modern day America. The well-judged tonal balance relies upon the film’s cranky protagonist who has a lot of unresolved issues, and even though he encounters tragedy and trauma within the many narrative threads, the incisive writing never loses sight of comedy and finds it in some dark places. The razor-sharp script is full of wit but the gags crucially don’t veer into the absurd, so as not to undercut the heartfelt emotion in the more sincere moments.

Jeffrey Wright is recognisable from his supporting roles for the most part, appearing in The Hunger Games franchise, Wes Anderson films, and the recent James Bond efforts. His starring roles are few and far between, but he’s fantastic at navigating this busy narrative. He plays grumpy without becoming a caricature, and his performance is grounded in the tender relationships he has with his family, and with his new girlfriend Coraline, portrayed by Erika Alexander.  With not a lot of screentime to work with, Ross and Brown are excellent as Monk’s somewhat estranged siblings, particularly the latter who adds a less subtle but equally impactful dimension to the humour and brings a different kind of heartache too.

Incredibly funny but very moving at the same time, American Fiction does something that feels quite rare on film; it puts challenging societal themes front and centre of a bold and daring comedy, blends it with universally relatable family issues, and does it all with a staggering sense of authenticity. This is no mean feat but in this confident and intelligent debut, Cord Jefferson makes it look easy.

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