I’ll cut to the chase: “American Fiction” is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
It stars Jeffrey Wright, who has a long, distinguished career as a supporting actor (including the TV series “Westworld” and repeat appearances in Bond movies as CIA agent Felix Leiter). But “American Fiction” is the first time he gets to be the lead character, appearing in every scene. And he’s great.
Wright plays Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a college professor and novelist who’s fed up with the way Black people are portrayed in popular culture as drug dealers, pimps, and other criminals. As a well-educated man from an upper-class family of white-collar professionals, he also can’t stand the way those characters usually speak.
As we meet him, things aren’t going well for Monk. He’s suspended by the university for daring to teach literature students about a Flannery O’Connor short story with the n-word in the title. His latest book has been turned down by multiple publishers. When he goes to visit his family in Boston, he discovers his mother (Leslie Uggams) is displaying signs of Alzheimer’s, his newly-divorced sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) needs help paying for her care, and his estranged brother (Sterling K. Brown) won’t chip in.
In the midst of all that, Monk goes to a bookstore and comes upon an event for Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), an author whose first novel is an out-of-the-box hit about stereotypical Black characters like those Monk despises. Appalled that the publishing community would embrace what he considers trash, he sets out to write a new book exploiting all those base instincts and clichés. He intends to hoist editors by their own petards, but it doesn’t quite go that way.
Writer and first-time director Cord Jefferson hits every note of Monk’s saga perfectly with a few surprises and plenty of laughs along the way, and gets picture-perfect performances out of his talented cast. I won’t spoil any more of it, except to say that the last shot of the movie reminds me of a similar one at the end of “Get Shorty.”
“American Fiction” will no doubt lead to a lot more opportunities for Jefferson, who has created one of the most original movies I’ve seen in a long time. As for Wright, I hope this means he leaves the ranks of character actors and books a lot more lead roles from here on out.
I give “American Fiction” a 9.5 on a scale of 10.
Note: I saw this movie at the end of November, and immediately went home and wrote this review. At that point, the movie was scheduled to open today, but its release in St. Louis was later moved to January 5, 2024. However, because the embargo has already been lifted, and it is in theaters in other cities, and I want to include “American Fiction” on my Best Movies Of 2023 list (which you can read here next week), I’m posting it now.