Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in filmmaker Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” (Photo Credit: Claire Folger/2023 Orion Releasing LLC).

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(“American Fiction” trailer courtesy of MGM)

Many African-Americans will relate to “American Fiction” the same way they related to Robert Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle” in the 1980s.

Whether a filmmaker, novelist or otherwise, many educated African-Americans have had the experience of a non-African-American thinking that their stereotypical view of the African-American community equates to reality for all African-Americans.

Whether speaking correct English, coming from a two-parent home or knowing more people from the Ivy League than the penitentiary, many non-African-Americans find it surprising that African-Americans are normal people with normal lived experiences and not always the product of the ghetto.

While those stereotypes might irritate African-Americans, those that make their living in the creative spaces of the world can find it infuriating when non-African-Americans only want to promote negative stereotypes within African-American art.

That is the painful dilemma that Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) finds himself in in “American Fiction.”

And life has come with a lot of other pain for “Monk” also.

He has a solid job as a college professor.

However, he is very unhappy in his position.

He does not care for his students that much, it seems.

And he does not care for the current state of literature, especially African-American literature.

Books that “Monk” considers great literature do not sell as well.

And books that he writes, and considers universal, get relegated to the African-American literature section of the bookstore when his intent was for his stories to reach mass audiences.

How could his books receive the title of African-American literature when the books that publishers promote as African-American literature deal with single, unwed mothers who do not understand the basics of the American language?

Author Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) is killing it in the African-American literature market with such dialogue as “you be pregnant again.”

Sintara’s books sell well in the African-American community.

But Sintara’s books really blow up in the White community because it be probably givin’ White folks that true and hood experience, you know what I’m sayin.’

However, “Monk” be not into that stuff, ya’ heard me.

His characters usually have dialogue in which the subject and the verb agree.

But that don’t be Black enough for de White folk from da suburb.

However, when his mother Agnes Ellison (Leslie Uggams) takes sick, and the medical bills begin to mount, “Monk” must reassess whether he wants to create great literature and struggle or write trash that creates a great deal of wealth when his family needs the money the most.

In “American Fiction,” “Monk” decides to hit dat quick lick and get his fetty up by writin’ a real hood tale about da real Black experience in da ghetto.

But wanting to keep his reputation as a true writer intact, “Monk” writes his joke of a book under an alias.

In “American Fiction,” the publishing company even comes up with some nonsense about the author not doing press because he is on the run from the law.

Although “Monk” writes the book as a joke and as a protest to the publishing industry, he faces a true dilemma when the book takes off and gives him the career, fame and wealth that he failed to achieve when he wrote intelligent material.

Shout out to filmmaker Cord Jefferson (“Watchmen” and “Survivor’s Remorse”) for the perfect casting of Wright in the role of “Monk.”

Wright has the perfect combination of seriousness, intellect and personality that makes him perfect for the lead role in “American Fiction.”

While “Monk” is most definitely serious and intellectual, Wright has enough edge and personality in real life to make his alias believable.

His alias must do the code switch in the opposite direction that many African-Americans must do it in the workforce.

While at the office, many African-Americans must speak the king’s English while leaving slang for the barbershop and the neighborhood.

But because the world wants the stereotypical N-word, “Monk” must speak slang in the workforce to make his book and his “life story” believable.

However, the true problem that makes “American Fiction” necessary is that many outside the African-American community truly believe those hood tales and gangsta tales about dope sells is all that the African-American community is about.

And although Hollywood has opened more for African-American creatives, those hood tales take up too much of the creative space.

Like it or not, African-American creatives still constantly hear that stories about ordinary African-Americans are not realistic.

They still hear that the gangsta lifestyle is equivalent to the African-American experience.

Therefore, when a content creator creates something about normal life amongst characters who happen to be African-Americans, they often get pushback from executives and the broader American public.

As a result, some African-American creatives must decide whether to sell out and make a living or stay true to themselves and struggle longer than they must.

While many African-Americans will relate to the stereotypes and code-switching, many more will relate to the family dynamic between “Monk,” his sister Lisa Ellison (Tracee Ellis Ross) and his brother Clifford Ellison (Sterling K. Brown).

Family bonds can be tenuous at times.

But when a person combines that with life and death illnesses and a lack of money, the pressure can become too much to handle.

Nevertheless, “American Fiction” is about stereotypes and the lengths African-Americans are willing to go to find mainstream success and money.

Much of what Hollywood puts out about the African-American community is fiction to most of the community.

But what does a person do when their industry is more interested in fiction than fact?

It is a dilemma found in “Hollywood Shuffle.”

And 40 years later, it is a dilemma that is still prevalent as shown in “American Fiction.”

 

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Todd A. Smith
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