Tuesday, December 5, 2023

A satiric story about a writer's dilemma


   American Fiction director Cord Jefferson’s adaptation of a novel by satirical author Percival Everett introduces us to a character who wrestles with problems that blur the boundary separating common sense from absurdity.
     Jeffrey Wright portrays Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a Black novelist and academic who refuses to bow to anyone's demands. He abhors African-American fiction  that's crammed with slang, hardship, and brutality. He refuses to write books that make white folks feel they're getting the goods on Black life. His books aren't flying off shelves.
     Small wonder, Ellison presses his agent (John Ortiz) to sell his latest work, a modernized version of Aeschylus’s The Persians. So far, no takers.
     Wright’s performance qualifies as one of the year’s best; he thoroughly embodies the rueful sensibilities of a writer who speaks in his own voice, no simple task in the California academic environment in which Ellison earns his living.
     Early on, Ellison is asked to take a leave from teaching for a transgression involving his use of a racial epithet to make a literary point. A white student objects even though Ellison insists that if he can come to terms with it, she should be able to deal with it, as well.
     Unchastened, Ellis departs for his Massachusetts hometown where he visits his mother (Leslie Uggams), his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross), and later his brother (Sterling K. Brown). Both Ross and Brown play medical doctors, which makes Ph.D. Ellison something of a family outlier. When Ross's character suddenly dies, Ellison must handle the family business, a job he doesn't welcome.
     Ellison also broods about the success of a young Black novelist who's generating commercial heat. He despises the best-selling work of Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), a woman who has written We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, a book that represents everything Ellison disdains. 
     Sintara, by the way, is no child of the ghetto; she’s whip-smart and market savvy.
      What’s a serious writer to do? In a fit of pique, Ellison dashes off Pafology, a novel reflecting the life and language of a young Black author who recently escaped from prison and is still on the run.
     Of course, Ellison uses a pseudonym. When his agent sells the book, Ellison is forced to adopt a fictional persona to perpetuate a ruse that opens the money spigot.
     As it turns out, both Ellison and Sintara wind up on a panel assigned with awarding a prestigious literary prize, a situation ripe with satiric possibilities that Jefferson fully explores.
      Wright’s performance and the movie’s slyness keep American fiction percolating while offering illustrative side trips that ground the the story's more parodic aspects: a blooming romance between Ellison and one of his mother’s neighbors (Erika Alexander) and the need to find a care facility for Uggams’ increasingly demented character. 
       The movie’s ending brings a deflating touch of meta to the proceedings, but that hardly detracts from Jefferson's smart and generously entertaining debut. Both American Fiction and Jefferson have plenty to say.  

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