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Dan Webster reviews "American Fiction"

Film still of Jeffrey Wright, Leslie Uggams, and Tracee Ellis Ross in American Fiction (2023).
American Fiction, Orion Pictures/MRC/T-Street/3 Arts Ent./MGM, 2023.
Film still of Jeffrey Wright, Leslie Uggams, and Tracee Ellis Ross in American Fiction (2023).


Thelonious Ellison is an outlier, and not just as a novelist and college professor. He’s also the aberration in his birth family, being the sole artist among a gaggle of physicians.

The intersection of all this leads him to make a decision that, in first-time feature filmmaker Cord Jefferson’s movie American Fiction, ends up making him a national figure—though not in any way he would previously have thought possible. Or even necessarily desired.

As an author, Ellison (played by Jeffrey Wright) is known for shaping novels around Greek myths, a style that doesn’t fit with current literary fashion. Though he is Black himself, he is told his writing just isn’t Black enough.

As a college professor, he is out of step with students who are overtly sensitive about cultural issues, particularly those concerning race. Because of a run-in with a student—ironically, a white student—over his reference to the N-word in a book title, "Monk" is forced to take a leave of absence.

He uses the opportunity to return to his family home in Boston where, after a long and estranged absence, he reunites with his sister Lisa (played by Tracee Ellis Ross), his mother Agnes (played by Leslie Uggams) and, eventually, his brother Cliff (played by Stirling K. Brown).

It's while he’s on leave that he comes to a critical juncture in both his career and his life: he attends a literary conference and listens to a writer (played by Issa Rae) read from her new novel written in Black street vernacular which—to Monk’s surprise—has become a critically acclaimed bestseller.

Aghast at what he’s hearing, which he considers little more than pandering to popular tastes, Monk decides to write his own book affecting a similar style. And what he comes up with is a parody autobiography that he credits to a fictional Stagg R. Leigh—notice the obvious play on words—and that at first carries the equally improbable title of My Pafology, with an “f” where the “th” should be.

He convinces his at-first reluctant agent (played by John Ortiz) to send the manuscript out, his intent being to show just how ridiculous the publishing industry has become. But what starts out as a joke turns into something serious when one publishing house offers Monk a huge contract.

The problem is they want to talk to the man they think is the author, which naturally puts Monk in a predicament: Either he has to come clean and admit that his autobiography is fake or find a way to pretend to be not only what he isn’t but what he has no respect for. With big money on the line, and a movie deal in the works, the temptation to go along with the ruse is a big one.

What he ends up doing fills out the final third of the film, melded as it is with a couple of poignant family losses and with Monk’s communing with his brother as the two debate how to deal with their failing mother. On top of all that, there’s the neighbor (played by Erica Alexander) who gives Monk a chance to forge an actual healthy relationship—if only he can find the strength to, for once in his life, open up emotionally.

From all reports, writer-director Jefferson—in his first effort at helming a feature film—has toned down his source material, Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. But what he gives us, buoyed by sequences that spring forth from Monk’s imagination, is edged sharply enough. Furthermore, his film’s cynical take on its various targets is balanced particularly by the feel that Monk’s family members demonstrate for authentic banter and the heartfelt emotions each character respectively embodies.

If helps that the film’s cast, from Wright to Ellis Ross, the TV actor Brown (from the hit show This Is Us) to the veteran Uggams, is uniformly superb.

Jefferson does cheat a bit by giving us an ending that glibly avoids the complications of real-world consequences involving fake memoirs—the kind that plagued authors such as James Frey and Margaret Seltzer (Google the names and you’ll get the references). But then what should we expect from American Fiction, a movie that announces its intentions in its very title?

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for