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‘American Fiction’ calls out Black stereotypes in fiction

Satirical film tackles race in publishing industry, largely succeeds

<p>“American Fiction” makes an exceptionally convincing argument that Black artists need to be able to tell new stories.&nbsp;</p><p>Courtesy of MGM Studios</p>

“American Fiction” makes an exceptionally convincing argument that Black artists need to be able to tell new stories. 

Courtesy of MGM Studios

Cord Jefferson’s deft directorial debut feature “American Fiction” criticizes the media’s celebration of inaccurate racial stereotypes that pander to white audiences. Initially released in 2023, the movie juxtaposes the absurdity of such stereotypes with the reality of Black American lives in all their complexities. 

The movie follows a sharp and stubborn writer named Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a wily wordsmith with a small readership. Ellison, who is Black, receives euphemistic complaints from publishers about his latest manuscript, but he knows what they’re really saying: it’s not a “Black book.” 

Later at a literary seminar, Monk’s panel receives a low turnout. Everyone attends another writer’s panel, Sintara Golden’s (Issa Rae). She gives a dramatic reading of a passage from her latest sensationalist success, “We's Lives in Da Ghetto,” a book that panders to Black stereotypes. Monk stands and watches from the back of the room. In a rare moment of cinematic splendor, as Sintara finishes her reading, a white woman spiritedly rises to her feet and applauds directly in front of Monk, rendering him invisible.

One night, as a joke, Monk begins to pen a novel titled “My Pafology” under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. It’s a Sintara-esque story with a panoply of cliches and stereotypes that usually represent Black characters in America. In the words of Monk, it has “deadbeat dads, rappers, crack.” 


He sends the derisive draft to his agent Arthur (John Ortiz) and encourages him to jokingly send the story to publishers. “Look at what they expect us to write,” Monk says. The joke misfires, however, and Monk finds out he’s struck a $750,000 publishing deal. 

The film is at its most cunning when it acts as a crusade against the fondness of academia, publishers and the public for art that reduces Black people to ridiculous stereotypes. White people, the film argues, engage with this art largely in order to feel absolved. For instance, Monk’s — or really, Leigh’s — publishers are excited to publish the novel around Juneteenth because they know white people will be “conscious stricken.”

As Monk begins to adopt the increasingly stereotypical persona of Stagg R. Leigh, he only further succeeds to captivate American audiences. During these moments, many of which are hilarious, the screenplay is razor-sharp. Moreover, the film makes an exceptionally convincing argument that Black artists need to be able to tell new stories. Instead of reducing Black lives to stereotypes, Jefferson insists that the scope of narratives Black artists get to tell should be enlarged.  

Much of the film, however, is not a tautly-wound satire. When Monk isn’t writing his highfalutin novels or masquerading as Stagg R. Leigh, he spends time with his family and faces authentic American anxieties. His mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His brother gets divorced when his ex-wife catches him with a man. Monk himself begins to date his lawyer neighbor. The rhetorical effect of these scenes is clear: they show the real lives of Black Americans, unlike the sensationalist stories that the market demands. These are the stories that should be told. 

Though Monk’s mundane moments with his family have a noble purpose in the film, it can be argued that they grow tedious. Whereas half of the movie is a scintillating, satirical and quick-witted social commentary, the other half consists of more quiet moments: dinner conversations, seaside strolls and a frankly forgettable marriage plot. The juxtaposition is jarring, and though it’s clearly intentional, it is understandable if viewers find themselves wishing Monk was in another humorous and provocative exchange with his publishers instead of chit-chatting with his family’s housekeeper. 

It’s unclear whether “American Fiction” is compelling throughout the entirety of its two hour run time, but it soars more often than not — especially during its more satirical and scathing moments. In the end though, Jefferson makes quite the argument that new American fictions are needed. He’s bored of the same books that line the shelves — he wants a new story. 


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