Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Dec 23, 2023 6:45 pm 
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Buying stereotypes

American Fiction is about a tweedy, professorial black writer called Thelonius "Monk" Ellison (the excellent, skillfully deadpan Jeffrey Wright), a prolific author of novels based on Greek tragedy (like the source original author Percival Everett) who, under stress and angry, produces a "ghetto" novel to mock the American literary world's rampant stereotyping, attaching to it the pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh, a felon on the loose. He is prompted by the success of a totally pandering book by a young woman called Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) called We Lives in the Ghetto, which has become a huge bestseller.

Monk's joke backfires, mocking the public and the world we live in. This compendium of blatant "ghetto" cliches, called My Pafology, immediately attracts a very lucrative book deal. A snappy Hollywood agent called Wiley Valdespino (an amusing Adam Brody) starts talking to Monk, fielded by Monk's longtime literary agent (John Ortiz). All Wiley wants is a more dramatic ending. "Work with me, man," Wiley says, speaking in the American white toned-down "ghetto." The film reaches for an added-on meta finale by ending with Monk proposing alternate endings to Wiley for a new self-portrait screenplay about his now confessed authorial deception.

I haven't read the 2001 source novel, Erasure, by Percival Everett, but a perusal of the latter's Wikipedia page shows he has a lot in common with Monk. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, has read Erasure, and suggests the movie tones down some of the satire's bitterness and expands characters and action. Mick is happy. The little man, the Chronicle's audience surrogate, is jumping for joy.

There is a lot going on in American Fiction about relationships and family not absolutely necessary for the satire. But that's the point: Monk isn't just a satire, but a person. On leave from his teaching job, and not writing anything since his books haven't been successful for a while, Monk goes east to Boston, where the big family house is, also to the summer place on the Cape. His family are all doctors. There's nothing "ghetto" about them. There are warm reunions much tempered by disconnects. A sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) is lost; the mother (a touching Leslie Uggams) has the beginnings of dementia and must be relocated to an assisted living facility - which Monk seems stuck with footing the bills for. We see a lot of brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), a plastic surgeon in Tucson, who's doing a lot of drugs and coming out as gay. He's around, but refuses to help. He's too busy with his self-development and his drug habit, one supposes. Monk meets a beautiful neighbor on the Cape, Coraline (Erika Alexander), and they fall into a relationship. A lot of wine is drunk.

There is a book competition for a literary prize and Monk is asked to join the small jury. Who should turn up as another member of the jury but Sintara Golden, autheress of We Lives in the Ghetto, and what should be submitted late, and then acclaimed by all the other judges except Sintara and Monk, but My Pafology. Only, in his comical felon persona, Stagg R. Leigh, Monk has changed the title of the book to Fuck, hoping to drive the publishers away. But nothing will drive them away. They love every over-the-top tongue-in-cheek N-word word of it.

American Fiction is about stereotypes and it risks giving off stereotypes itself. But it's about an intelligent black writer, the conscience of the culture, and it's important that he's played by a supremely intelligent actor, Jeffrey Wright. One of the most important aspects of this movie is simply that Wright, one of our best actors, gets to play the most central role he's had since he starred in Julian Schnabel's delicious and audacious 1996 Basquiat. I wish this were as witty and stylish as that. It's not. But American Fiction can communicate to a wider audience about a more significant cultural phenomenon - the exploitation of false racial stereotypes - in a warm, entertaining way.

The main action is simple, and it's the main point. White people like to be fed ghetto stereotypes of black people so they can be titillated and sympathetic. Some black people may fall for it too, Some black writers pander to this taste for a fake "realism." One such is Sintara Golden, whose pandering "ghetto" novel ("Girl, you's pregnant again," is a sample line) is instantly hugely popular. Monk's angry, outspoken demeanor leads him to be put on unpaid leave from the Southern California college where he teaches. He does not have patience with put-on political correctness exemplified by a young white woman student whose sensibilities won't let her bear to hear the "N" word even though it is part of the southern literature Monk is teaching. It's important that the movie points to both pandering and "woke" culture. American Fiction contains some of the sly black humor that turned up in Boots Riley's 2018 Sorry to Bother You . But this comes out of an older, more intellectual black milieu. Maybe it will appeal across a wider demographic.

This is one of the most timely, smart screenplays of the year, and it may depict blackness in a nuanced manner that is much needed. But it's for African American critics to decide that, not white critics. All I can say is that calling attention to the pandering is much needed. It's a wry message, because Monk needs the big money his fake "ghetto" novel promises to bring. You can't starve and you've got to take care of your aging mother. That's a kind of "reality" American Fiction purveys.

American Fiction, 117 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 8, 2023 (winning the People's Choice Award), showing at other festivals including the Hamptons, Mill Valley, Chicago, Austin, AFI and Denver. It opened in US theaters (limited) Dec. 15, 2023. Screened for this review at the Grand Lake Theater, Oakland, Dec. 23, 2023. Metacritic rating: 81% (43 reviews).

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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