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Review: 'American Fiction' an incisive, relatable film offering

Samantha Smith reviews a new Black film that's wowing critics and generating Oscar buzz with its timely themes and free-spirited storytelling.

Jeffrey Wright and Issa Rae star in "American Fiction", in theaters now. (Claire Folger/MGM)

Looking for a smart movie that balances laughs with empathy? Make a plan to see “American Fiction” in theaters.

The film follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a struggling author fed up with profitable books depicting offensive African-American stereotypes. These frustrations are inflamed by a successful novel, “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae). 

With additional pressure from his literary agent Arthur (John Ortiz), Monk writes a satirical book filled with offensive Black tropes. When the book becomes a hit, he faces a moral dilemma: Is it worth pandering to White audiences to become successful?

In the midst of his career confusion, Monk also struggles in his family relationships. He is seen as an underachiever compared to his siblings, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), who are both doctors. All of them struggle to connect with their mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams). These dynamics bring funny moments and hard conversations that are at once relatable.

Despite it all, Monk finds love with Coraline (Erika Alexander). She brings out a softness in Monk that strips him away from his grumpy exterior. 

The star-studded cast shines in the film, as each character is given plenty of backstory and context. From brother and sister quarrels to parents playing favorites, audiences will find their own lives or loved ones depicted in the film.

“American Fiction” is also the directorial debut of Cord Jefferson, a Black writer who worked in journalism before writing for the small screen on series such as “The Good Place” and “Watchmen” (2019), the latter of which earned him an Emmy. Jefferson also wrote “American Fiction,” which is based on the 2001 novel “Erasure” by the African-American writer Percival Everett. 

In an interview for the movie, Jefferson shared how he connected with Monk’s professional struggles in his own career—being asked to write movies or shows with cliché cultural themes or to make characters “more Black.”

“Even in a world of fiction and fantasy, there’s still such a rigid limitation as to what people think Black life looks like,” he said. 

When asked how he was able to pull together such a talented ensemble cast in his first film, Jefferson contributed it to the script. 

“Look at what happens when you write real roles for Black characters,” he said. 

“American Fiction” won the People’s Choice Award at the 2023 Toronto Film Festival, which has catapulted it to additional nominations. So far, it has earned Satellite and Critic’s Choice Award nods, and two Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) and Best Actor. The film is also receiving Oscar buzz, with Academy Award nominations due in late January. 

In the end, the film’s nearly two-hour run time meets humor and humanity with a star-studded cast. It’s a story of work, family, and the art of balancing it all.

Samantha Smith is a copy and content writer based in Atlanta. She worked for the Archdiocese of Atlanta for nearly a decade in various roles, including as a staff writer for The Georgia Bulletin, where she won numerous Catholic Press Awards for her writing and social media campaigns. Connect with Samantha by following her Catholic blog, Spirit and Sparkle, and her Twitter/X at @BeimaxCreates.

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