Exploring identity and satire in “American Fiction”

Published 1:16 pm Monday, March 18, 2024

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This week at the Tryon Theatre is “American Fiction,” a film that we have long awaited and are thrilled to finally have. 

This film is a directorial debut for Cord Jefferson and was nominated for five Oscars, ultimately being awarded Best Adapted Screenplay. The source from which the film is adapted is the acclaimed 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett. The film’s lead, Jeffrey Wright, was also nominated for an Oscar for his performance; a performance well deserving of its recognition and an exemplar of Wright’s long-standing talent. 

The character at the center of this story is an educated and mannered writer/professor living in Los Angeles: Thelonius “Monk” Ellison (his nickname being a reference to the namesake of Thelonius Monk, a famous jazz pianist and composer). Monk is a highly intelligent and refined man, writing novels that reflect his cultured experience and his academic inclinations. However, much to his emotional disappointment and financial dismay, Monk’s novels are struggling to sell, routinely losing commercial and critical attention to other novels trafficking in stereotypes and caricatures of the black experience in America. In a decision, both aspirational and aggressively derisive, Monk sets out to write an indulgent, pandering, and stereotype-laden work of fiction, utilizing a pseudonym to aid in the sale of his fabrication.

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This is also a film about family, about the unique bonds of relation to others and ourselves. Monk’s story is not only a satirical send-up of the literary market but also a deeply personal exploration of a middle-aged man’s mental and emotional state as he reckons with age, legacy and loss. It delves into many concepts, layering a story that is equal parts social critique, familial drama and industry satire. 

The execution of this complex film is not always perfect, but it is nonetheless laudable for its reach and effectiveness. “American Fiction” will surely prompt you to think, to question your preconceived outlooks, but it will also make you feel. And the feeling that “American Fiction” produces is beautiful in its lifelike form, multifaceted and mutable. This film will engender empathy, frustration, compassion and, above all else, humor, both searing and wholesome. 

“American Fiction” is mature in its themes, asking a viewer to appreciate the nuances of artistic expression and the tenuous balance between the interior individual and public perception. The depth of emotion that underwrites the film, even in its many moments of levity, is one that would be lost on many younger viewers. Lastly, that same depth is what produces such efficacy in the frequent laughs the film provides; their contrast is defined sharply against the social and personal implications of the comedy, as is the case with any excellent satire. 

We hope you will join us for one of the best films of the year!