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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

American Fiction

American Fiction is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, a satire on the US publishing industry. It's a showcase for Jeffrey Wright, who is magnificent in the role of a struggling intellectual author who dumbs down to write a bestseller.

Wright is best known on-screen for his prominent secondary roles in The Batman, No Time To Die, and a host of Wes Anderson movies, which are no real reflection of his talent given that he is regularly acclaimed within critics' circles as one of the best character actors working on screen and stage today.

His cinematic career started with a huge splash when he depicted artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in Julian Schnabel's 1996 biopic – back then, it seemed like Wright might go on to be acclaimed as his generation's Robert de Niro. So there is some irony in the fact that he may finally get the appreciation his talents deserve by playing a weary African-American author fighting back against the unconscious bias that has stopped his career from reaching greater heights.

The action starts with Wright's author Thelonious "Monk" Ellison at his wit's end. His books are stocked in the African-American section of bookstores simply because of the colour of his skin. When he confronts a young white bookstore employee about the placement of his work on the shelves, he's met with a lack of understanding about the way in which racial pigeonholing works, ensuring that a black author's work will never sit alongside the likes of Don DeLillo and John Steinbeck, no matter how good it is.

He pays the bills by working as an academic, and appears on literary panels attended by only a handful of people. His frustrations are reflected in his very name, a homage both to the improvisational jazz musician Thelonious Monk, whose life was blighted by financial woes, and Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison, whose 1952 book about the black experience was ground zero for a sub-genre of literature.

Wright's Ellison is ready to explode when a novel called We Lives in da Ghetto by Sintara Golden (an excellent Issa Rae) becomes a bestseller. He believes that the success of a book that uses a so-called street patois and makes a virtue of lousy grammar as proof of an "authentic voice" only serves to propagate unhelpful stereotypes.

In his fit of fury, he adopts a pseudonym Stagg R Leigh, and writes My Pafology. The novel, purportedly written by a fugitive criminal, becomes a runaway success.

Writer-director Jefferson, whose work on shows such as Watchmen and Master of None has shown him to be a dab hand at entertainingly unpicking racial dilemmas, has made an excellent debut feature film. It has the feel and tone of Alexander Payne at his best, while it's all driven by Wright's performance, whose character also deals with a complicated and dysfunctional personal life and family.

It's such an entertaining film that it's easy to overlook the fact that the comedy only works because it depicts structural racism in such an exaggerated manner.

Jefferson’s film succeeds best when it’s being thoughtful, even as it often tries too hard to implore you to react. It carries a sensitive, important declaration in its bones: A testament to the versatility and validity of where Black art meets Black life, and a sharply pointed finger at the many institutional factors that keep it, and its creators, restrained.

Broad-brush American Fiction might be, but its approach to race and racism is oblique and unexpected, and it’s very funny about publishing’s literary ghetto. This is satire at its best, a film full of tremendous laughs and salient observations on racial stereotyping.

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