American Fiction is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. The film focuses on the story of Monk (Jeffrey Wright), an author and literature professor who feels alienated as the struggles he faces as a Black man from a middle-class family are acutely underrepresented in the media. Growing sick of the popularity of racially charged ‘poverty porn’ and following difficulties finding a publisher for his latest book, Monk decides to write his own drug-dealing parody novel rife with spelling mistakes and stereotypes to poke fun at the tropes of the kinds of novels he sees as beneath him.
In a twist of fate straight out of The Producers, this dumpster fire of a novel becomes a bestseller and, after getting a little too deep into the joke, Monk is forced to double down. He assumes the personality of pseudonym ‘Stagg R. Leigh’, an ex-con on the run from the law – all the while keeping the source of his newfound wealth a secret to those who matter to him.
There wasn’t a single joke in this film that didn’t land in the theatre, the audience erupting into belting laughter at each critique of a tired cliché or reductive stereotype being played out on screen. This was enhanced by the intermittent pang of tragedy throughout whilst the film deals with the conflict between dumbing down art for wide appeal and the reality of survival in today’s economic climate.
While some of this is perhaps more of a testament to the power of Erasure, American Fiction is nevertheless a strong reminder that satire is always enhanced when it is willing to question its premise and earnestly represent the opposing side. The film makes no attempt to shy away from this, going so far as to posit in one scene that perhaps Monk’s own assumptions are in one way or another equally reductive. Whilst the exploitative big-business executives give no care to the reality of what they read, by the end of the film, Monk’s own open dismissal of all these stories is also challenged – both implicated as essentially doing the very same thing.
It is this kind of consideration and willingness to pause that elevates American Fiction from a simple on-the-nose comedy to an interesting piece of satire that leaves you thinking long after you’ve gone home. To those lovers of blunt humour amongst you, I would strongly recommend it, as the least you’ll be left with coming out of this film is a laugh.
American Fiction is out now in cinemas