Oscar Watch 2023: American Fiction


Despite its recent nomination for Best Picture, I haven’t heard a peep about American Fiction online. I knew next to nothing about it before watching and I see absolutely no one discussing it on social media. I’m stunned, honestly, because the movie is great. Being a mixture of satire and dark comedy, American Fiction is an interesting look at the realities black creatives face when trying to get their work recognized. It’s also just plain funny.

Now, I’m not exactly knowledgeable about African American studies or even modern black literature. From a cursory look online, it seems American Fiction is an adaptation of the 2001 Erasure by Percival Everett. Its plot focuses on the struggles of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, played by Jeffrey Wright, as he attempts to juggle his hellish personal life with the wild fictional life he accidentally wrote into fame. That second part is where the majority of the comedy stems from and it’s, reportedly, what the novel focuses more on.

Before getting into my thoughts on the movie, I would like to point to an NPR article written by Carole V. Bell I happened upon after watching it. Titled Advice from a critic: Read ‘Erasure’ before seeing ‘American Fiction,I obviously failed at that piece of advice. The article doesn’t condemn anyone for preferring a specific medium or even state that the novel is better than the film. The idea behind it is that Everett’s novel leans heavier into the satirical aspects of this story. There are two fictitious novels featured in American Fiction that get actual excerpts in Erasure, furthering the central theme of black authors having to “sell out” in order to make it big.

American Fiction

© Amazon MGM Studios

The main thrust of the plot in American Fiction is that Monk is an author with high standards for himself who is struggling to get his latest novel published. As his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), relays to him, Monk’s novels aren’t “black enough” to get published. He may have critical acclaim, but people don’t want to read about actual black lives, just what they perceive as actual black lives. Frustrated, Monk returns home and attends a writers’ conference where he happens to catch a young black author discussing her new book, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. Absolutely livid at the sheer pandering of it all, Monk pens his own racially insensitive novel under a pseudonym and is surprised to discover when it becomes a massive hit.

The story is shockingly modern for a novel that was written in 2001. While some updating was obviously done to transplant American Fiction into modern times, there wasn’t much else that needed to be changed about its satirical elements. Despite all of the progress we’ve made as a society, there is still an undercurrent of racism present when it comes to funding creative works. Directors such as Jordan Peele and Ryan Coogler have managed to helm massively successful, almost entirely black productions, but it’s still not the norm in Hollywood or beyond.

Not to pick on Tyler Perry too much, which both Erasure and American Fiction do, but his work has always been particularly lowbrow. All of the Madea films have been based on racial stereotypes and even his shows House of Payne and Meet the Browns are just a collection of cliches and insensitive pastiches made to wring a laugh out of the lowest common denominator. At the same time, Perry is likely just giving audiences what they want to generate revenue, similar to what Monk does when he “sells out” to write his ludicrous novel My Pafology. Perry also employs predominantly black workers, so that’s a big plus.

© Amazon MGM Studios

Anyway, American Fiction isn’t strictly about the offensive life that Monk has written. Apart from being fed up with the system, Monk’s home life has taken a turn for the worse. He recently was forced to take time off from teaching and upon reacquainting with his family, his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) passes away. On top of all of that, his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) is developing Alzheimer’s, and his estranged brother, Clifford (Sterling K. Brown) isn’t providing much help. That’s certainly a more realistic story than the garbage Monk concocted for My Pafology, but it also shows you that Monk needs the cash. He has to go through with this dumb plan to help provide for his family.

That is where the mastery of American Fiction comes into play. It forces audiences to get over their preconceived notions of what black families are and face the reality that they are human like everyone else. I’m sure most people reading this aren’t cartoonishly racist, but even systemic and cultural racism might have you believe that black families have some connection to “the hood” or gang-related activity. You don’t need to be dropping racial slurs or waving a Confederate flag to be racist.

The author of the ludicrous We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), is employed as an example of Monk’s own internalized racism. When he first hears her reading her novel, he expects her to be uneducated and rough. When the two wind up on a book committee to pick out the best novel of the year, he’s surprised when she drops some intense knowledge about structure, tone, and theming for novels. Monk can’t believe he’s agreeing with her, but then he also does the same thing as her with his novel.

© Amazon MGM Studios

I don’t want to spoil too much else, but American Fiction continues along this path for its entire duration until a rather hilarious ending occurs. It typifies exactly what an adaptation of a novel would normally receive in Hollywood, though somehow the film dodges that same outcome. That’s a part of the story likely inspired by Everett’s own hesitation to sell the film rights to Erasure years ago. He only budged when more black directors and writers started to crop up behind the camera.

You can maybe say the juxtaposition of tones in American Fiction doesn’t necessarily feel consistent at times, but I would argue that’s the point. Life isn’t always consistent. You can be flying high one day and then down in the dumps the next. The film is funny when it cuts to Monk’s frustrations over My Pafology being an incredible success and then becomes sincere and earnest when dealing with his family. It’s two sides of the same coin.

Having watched American Fiction with no prior understanding of its material, I fully understand why it was selected as a Best Picture nominee. My vote is still with Past Lives thus far, but the work done here is highly enjoyable. If you’re able to laugh at some uncomfortable truths and put to rest some of your own prejudices, you’ll find a lot to love in American Fiction.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.