Friday, April 12, 2024

Review: Jeffrey Wright Gives a Tour de Force Performance in Cord Jefferson’s Savvy “American Fiction”


I first saw Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” at the Hamptons Film Festival and was knocked out. It opens this Friday and is a sleeper hit that I hope will resonate at the box office.

Jefferson, who used to write for the defunct Gawker website, has come up with a trenchant satire along the lines of “Wag the Dog.” Like this year’s “The Holdovers,” “American Fiction” is also a personal statement with well drawn characters portrayed by top actors.

Chief among them is Thelonious “Monk” Ellison played in a career defining moment by Jeffrey Wright. Monk is a college professor who’s fighting with his students and hasn’t published a book in eons. His school puts him on leave, so he heads home to Boston and family. That includes his sister, Lisa — the charming Tracee Ellis Ross — his newly gay brother (a muscular and funny Sterling K. Brown) and his mom, played by the legendary Leslie Uggams. Monk also gets a girlfriend in the form of Erika Alexander, who should be in more movies. (She was a TV star in the 90s.)

At the same time, Monk — who publishes esoteric books and is a snob — is frustrated by new, hot Black writers who are pretending to be “ghetto” to get attention. One in particular, Sintara (that’s Issa Rae) is winning awards and getting attention for her book, which just makes Monk irate. Suddenly strapped with expenses from his mother’s dementia, Monk sets out to write a junk book under a pseudonym — Stagg R. Leigh — to make money and make fools of publishing and academia.

What unravels is Jefferson’s brilliant send up of the literary world and culture in general. Monk sells his book for a fortune and demands of the cluesless white publisher that it be titled “Fuck.” The publisher– who is led to believe Monk is an ex con on the run– agrees. And the rest is mayhem as Monk has to keep lying and covering up what he’s done. The book is (implausibly) rushed to publication, which it means it qualifies for a Literary Award both Monk and Sintara are judging. (This is a fable.) So now two different paths for lying have been set, and you know they will converge with a bang.

Jefferson is clever. He’s made the Ellisons debt heavy but still upper class, with a beautiful home in the Boston suburbs and a beach house on the city’s south shore. They are the opposite of what Monk is angry about in current Black movies and books. He comes from a good family that has nothing to do with pimps, gang bangers, and so on. The point is made precisely. Meanwhile, the music of the real Thelonious Monk plays in the background. (So does an obscure Joe Simon sounding R&B band called Ace Spectrum circa 1975.)

Like any layered satire, “American Fiction” benefits from a second screening because it’s full of little Easter eggs you might not get the first time. My favorite is the name Stagg R. Leigh, which no one in the movie picks up on. (The Lloyd Price hit, “Stagger Lee,” was derived from a 19th century African American pimp who became a legend in real life. Plus, the family name Ellison is a nod to Ralph, author of “Invisible Man.”)

Of course, “American Fiction” wouldn’t outdo itself without a surprise twist of an ending, very “meta,” and ironic as the whole thing maybe is an actual American fiction, but who can separate the various strands as Jefferson gives us multiple possibilities of how this will all conclude. Without doubt this screenplay will be a surprise winner at all the awards shows, and Jeffrey Wright — who I saw in “Top Dog/Underdog” on Broadway and has since become a standard bearer for great acting — will finally get his due.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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