Netflix & Chill #107: American Fiction

This movie finally made it to Prime Video. On a long, difficult afternoon, I decided that I was going to

sit downstairs in the cool of my basement and watch it because I hadn't actually done that for a while and I'm so glad I did. American Fiction stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious 'Monk' Ellison, whom everyone calls Monk who is a highly-intelligent upper-class African American Professor and writer who lives in Los Angeles. His novels receive a ton of academic and critical praise but don't sell well and publishers have rejected his latest manuscript as not being 'black enough'. He gets placed on temporary leave after making one of his students cry over objecting to having to discuss a short story by Flannery O'Connor containing the 'n-word' in the title (the second weird intersection of what I am currently reading in real life and what I'm watching. Flannery is everywhere, apparently) and he is encouraged to go home to Boston and spend time with his family and attend a literary seminar.

While at the panel, he notices that his panel is poorly attended, but the room is packed for an interview with Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) whose bestselling novel 'We's Lives In Da Ghetto' is drowning in black stereotypes. Later that night, Monk returns home to have dinner with his mother, Agness (Leslie Uggams), and his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), a doctor. His mother has Alzheimer's and her need for care is growing quickly-- later, while Lisa and Monk are having drinks, she has a heart attack which proves to be fatal and brings Monk's brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) home for Lisa's funeral. Cliff is a plastic surgeon who is divorced after his wife caught him having sex with another man. Now, he is all about frequent drug use and casual sex to 'make up for lost time' and Monk meets and starts dating Coraline (Erika Alexander) who is a lawyer who lives across the street from his mother's beach house.

Unsure of what to do with the mounting costs of care for his mother and frustrated at Sintara's success, Monk writers 'My Pafology' a satirical novel mocking the stereotypes expected from Black writers: melodramatic plots, deadbeat dads, gang violence, and drugs. He gets his agent Arthur (John Ortiz) to submit to publishers out of contempt for their refusal to take his latest work seriously and to his surprise and horror, the publishers love it and want to offer him a $750,000 advance. Arthur convinces Monk to adopt the persona of 'Stagg R. Leigh', a convict on the run, and Monk promptly gets offered a movie deal from a producer, Wiley (Adam Brody.) Insulted by the publishing executive's comments and horrified at his unintended success, Monk tries to blow the whole thing up by insisting the title of the book be changed to 'Fuck' but the executives agree to that as well! 

To top it all over, he's invited to help judge the New England Book Association's Literary Award as part of a 'diversity push' and reluctantly accepts, only to find that Sintara is one of the judges as well.

Meanwhile, Monk's mother Agnes moves into an expensive assisted living facility but adapts poorly. Cliff briefly returns to see her- asking where Monk found the money for a place as nice as this, but accepts Monk's quick and hurried explanation. Their mother makes a homophobic remark to Cliff, however, and he leaves. 'Fuck' becomes a bestseller, which puts strain on Monk's relationship with Coraline because he hasn't told her and she actually likes the book, which upsets him. Also, the FBI starts asking questions because they believe he might actually be a fugitive. Compounding things even more, his publisher submits the novel to the New England Literary Award, and Monk is forced to judge his own novel.

The family housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor) is getting married at the family beach house and on the day of the wedding, Monk is surprised to find Cliff living there- he hadn't gone home after all. Initially, Monk wants him to leave, but Lorraine and her husband-to-be invite Cliff and his friends to stay and the wedding goes forward happily. As the night wanes away, Cliff and Monk talk candidly about the impact of his father's suicide and Cliff advises Monk to let people 'love all of him.'

Monk and Sintara have a conversation about 'Fuck' and Sintara makes it clear that she thinks it's 'pandering' Monk agrees, but asks why her novel isn't that much different, given it's 'trauma porn' and it is obviously not being in line with Sintara's middle-class background. She argues that she based it on actual research and that giving voiceless people a voice is 'giving the market what it wants' and that it's not her fault if white people form stereotypes from her book.

At the awards ceremony, it turns out (of course) 'Fuck' wins and Monk goes onstage and says that he has a confession to make, and then, the screen cuts to black.

It turns out the events we have been watching are Monk's screenplay based on his experiences writing for Wiley's production company as an alternative to the 'Fuck' adaptation. Monk still hasn't revealed his identity to the public and is still separated from Coraline. Wiley likes the screenplay overall but wants him to change to an ambiguous ending. We see Monk propose him running away from the ceremony to apologize to Coraline, which Wiley dismisses as to 'rom-com' and then Monk suggests one where the police bust in and believe that he's actually a wanted criminal holding a gun and take him down in a ridiculous hail of gunfire. Wiley, of course, loves that one, and as Monk drives away, he exchanges a look with one of the other actors playing a slave in Wiley's blaxploitation film 'Plantation Annihilation' and they acknowledge each other.

Okay, in terms of a thought-provoking movie, there is a ton and a half of things to unpack about this film. At the top: I love this cast, they're just about perfect, and while I understand why Lisa died when she did in the film, the chemistry that Tracee Ellis Ross had with Jeffrey Wright when they were together in scenes made me want to see more of them. Don't get me wrong: Sterling K. Brown and Wright bounced nicely off of each other, but Tracee Ellis Ross was really good in this movie and I was sad when her character was taken out so soon. 

(I also really liked the score-- I think it plays with Monk's name and has a beautiful jazz/blues undertone to it all.)

The writing aspect of it is something that I enjoyed immensely because it's so true. If you want to really make a go at writing through traditional routes, a ton of the process involves finding out what publishers want and then writing that. My creative process (personally) has never worked that, which is part of the reason why I've got my own Substack going that I'm trying to nurture and grow because I want to find people who like and enjoy my writing rather than trying to contort my writing into something that people enjoy. I sympathize with Monk's character on that basis alone and I think anyone who writes even with only vague aspirations of professional success will probably identify with the character as well.

I also love that this film absolutely eviscerates white guilt. Just absolutely mocks the fuck out of it-- with (what I think) is kind of a two-pronged message of: white guilt serves absolutely nobody, people of color or white folks all that well, and if we're going to have white guilt, people of color might as well monetize it if they can to make money off it.

As a very white dude, I will freely admit that I probably did not pick up on all of the racial nuances in this movie, but I did like the scene where John tells Monk 'Well, you don't believe in racism anyway' just as he tries to hail a cab that drives right past him to pick up a white guy. I do like that there's a lot of- I don't know if I'd call it tension, but let's just say the unspoken discussion about social class, as both Monk and Sintara have what, to mainstream voices would be decidedly atypical backgrounds. 

Overall: Loved this movie. Great cast, great story, great writing, and makes you think. It absolutely deserves all of the critical praise and love that it's gotten. My Grade: **** out of ****


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