Cord Jefferson’s Oscar-nominated film, American Fiction, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2023 and quickly became a leading favorite in the award season, racking critical acclaim. Starring Jeffrey Wright, the film is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, Erasure.
American Fiction (2023) Plot Summary & Movie Synopsis:
The film revolves around Monk Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a writer and academic who is perpetually disgruntled with the publishing industry for its skewed expectations of Black writers. He hasn’t published anything in a long while, and his literary career has hit a slump. Early in the film, he proclaims he doesn’t believe in race, having been brutally skewered right before that a student is too sensitive about race in classroom discussions. He tells her if he can mind bringing up the n-word, she being white shouldn’t have an issue as well. His department requests him to take a leave, as Ellison sets out to travel to Boston to attend a literary festival and also make a visit to his home and family.
At the festival, his session has an incredibly low turnout, and he discovers most audiences have gathered to listen to a newly emergent bestselling author, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), to whom he instantly takes a dislike based on what she reads out from her book, “We Live In Da Ghetto.” The book seems to him a rehash of all the templates of a Black novelist, which white audiences happily lap up and bestow high status.
Monk’s sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), has an untimely death, which leaves him to attend to the duties of looking after his mother (Leslie Uggams), who has Alzheimer’s. Monk has mostly stayed at a distance from these obligations. Now, he is forced to take responsibility, with his brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) quickly refusing to take any. Monk realizes he has to put his mother into a care facility that will ensure round-the-clock supervision.
Monk is continually vexed by the narratives about Black life that are regularly churned out and receive popularity. Drunken, he churns out a manuscript that is a riff on the stereotypical templates, replete with violence and drug dealers, and urges his agent to send it out to publishers. Titling the book My Pafology, he conceived it as a joke so he is startled when publishers start showing tremendous interest, offering an unprecedented advance for buying it and hailing it as a masterpiece. He even gets a movie deal from a director, Wiley (Adam Brody), who, his agent informs him, is known for making ‘Oscar-bait’ movies.
Monk has to concoct a fake identity as a wanted fugitive to complement the impression the book gives of its author. As it is published under a pseudonym, Stagg Leigh, Monk’s book gets stratospheric attention. He also has a vibrant romance going on with his neighbor, Coraline (Erika Alexander).
Why Is Monk So Stubborn About His Notion of Black Identity vis a vis literature?
Monk is invited to be on the jury of a literary prize as a gesture of diversity. Sintara is the other Black person on the jury. To Monk’s horror, his book, which he retitles as Fuck, finds its way into their deliberations for the prize. Most of the white jury praise the book, with the two Black voices dismissive of it. Sintara asserts the book is a cheap recycling of Black misery porn with little substance. This provokes Monk to seek out a private conversation with Sintara, where he rails at her for writing a similar book.
She points out to him her passion for her book’s subject, telling him his anger should be directed at the wider establishment, not at her for exercising her right of expression. It is not her crime that books like hers are given the sole space of representing the entirety of Black lives. It brings a shift in Monk’s hardened perceptions. However, Monk’s book is ultimately chosen as the winner, the white jurors declaring it is necessary to listen to Black voices while ironically ignoring those among them.
American Fiction (2023) Movie Ending Explained:
What Actually Happens at the Prize Ceremony?
At the literary award ceremony, as Fuck is announced the winner and Monk decides to go on the stage to reveal his identity as its writer, the film cuts to a conversation between Monk and Wiley discussing the ending of the adaptation. Monk suggests cutting the film to black once he gets on stage. Wiley opposes it, remarking it has too much ambiguity. Monk then proposes a romantic, mushy one where he basically runs out of the ceremony and goes to Coraline to apologize for being such an opinionated douche. Wiley dismisses this, too, calling it an excessive swerve in tonality to a rom-com.
The third one Monk proposes is bloody, with cops storming in and shooting him dead. Wiley immediately greenlights it. The film leaves it to the viewer to choose which ending they might prefer while stressing how Wiley’s greenlit version, which he is confident will get all the attention, essentially derives entertainment from the spectacle of yet another Black death. It is also a telling sign that Monk doesn’t dispute the ending anymore, indicating he no longer takes it too hard on himself and other Black artists, the woeful blindness of white executives and decision-makers.
American Fiction (2023) Movie Theme Explained:
Destabilizing Monolithic Notion of Identity
Throughout the film, Monk is dead set against the privileging of one set of Black experiences as being given the paramount social currency, robbing the richness and variety intrinsic to any form of identity. He posits Fuck as a satirical dig on the industry and larger expectations of Black literature and art. When it receives traction, he is nevertheless shocked by how severely limited the imagination is of Black identity and how mere, rote pandering to those familiar beats can easily generate cultural appeal, none of which his other books have managed. Monk’s plea is to expand those notions, a tirade that is critical of other Black voices who aren’t shy of giving white audiences what they are content reading and not provoking them any further.