When he spoke to the audience after the premiere of his film “American Fiction” at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday night, director Cord Jefferson talked about how films about Black people always seem to focus on tragedy and trauma, to the exclusion of every other part of the Black experience. “Jewish people, you get ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Annie Hall,’” he said to laughter. “But a prestige Black film has always got to be civil rights or slavery or drug dealers.”
You can’t really say that “American Fiction” strikes back by being part “Schindler’s List” and part “Annie Hall,” but it does pull off the remarkable feat of being a lovely, charming comedy that makes damn serious points about representation and racial politics. And for Jefferson, a former journalist who became a television writer for “Master of None,” “Watchmen” and “Succession,” among others, it is an outlandishly assured directorial debut, a beautifully modulated film that takes a great actor, Jeffrey Wright, and gives him a spectacular showcase.
The film is adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” and on one level, it’s a companion piece to Roger Ross Williams’ TIFF documentary “Stamped From the Beginning,” a survey of how storytelling and imagery have created harmful images of Black people over centuries. On another, it’s one of the festival’s funniest movies, a jazzy riff that seems undeniably, effortlessly funny from the barbed classroom scene that opens the film to the Altmanesque finale.
It makes sense to call “American Fiction” jazzy, because its rhythms are clearly inspired by the name of its central character, Thelonious Ellison. He’s a writer and English professor whom everybody calls Monk because of his first name – and while there are no actual Thelonious Monk needle-drops on the soundtrack, Laura Karpman’s indelible score and a variety of tracks from people like Cannonball Adderly set a tone that Jefferson picks up and runs with.
In Wright’s adept hands, Monk is a misanthrope to remember. He’s a brilliant writer whose serious books that have won lots of praise but haven’t sold much in recent years, and when we meet him he’s telling a white girl in his class that she shouldn’t be offended that he’s written the title of the Flannery O’Connor short story “The Artificial N—–” on the board in his classroom. “With all due respect, Brittany, if I can get over it, so can you,” he says.
But that incident, and others like it, get Monk a forced leave from his professorship, beginning when he heads back to Boston for a book convention and a meet-up with his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), and mother, Agnes (a radiant Leslie Uggams). At the convention, he’s on a panel that draws a tiny crowd, because everybody’s off listening to Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), a younger writer whose education and privileged upbringing is belied by what Monk sees as the pandering cliches in her bestselling book “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.”
Family matters become even more complicated: His mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his sister suddenly dies of a heart attack, leaving Monk to deal with his mother’s care with little help from his brother, Cliff (a hilarious Sterling K. Brown), who has recently come out as gay and isn’t much interested in leaving his home in Tucson, despite its drawbacks: “There’s only one gay bar, and it’s full of college kids. One of them asked me if I was Tyler Perry.”
In rough straits both financially and creatively, Monk is caught in grim circumstances – but it’s played lightly and gently up to the moment when he sits at his typewriter, reaches into his deep well of disgust and begins writing a book that he calls “My Pathology” and then changes to “My Pafology.” The characters, the worst sort of urban gangsta stereotypes, come to life in the room around him, declaiming his laughable dialogue and occasionally turning to him to ask, “What do I say now?”
Monk pauses. “I think some kind of melodramatic monologue,” he offers.
Out of spite, he insists that his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), send the manuscript – which, in a nod to an earlier Black stereotype from the realm of song, he credits to Stagg R. Leigh – to some publishers. “Monk, who do you expect to buy it?” his agent asks. “Nobody,” he says. “I just want to rub their noses in it.”
The trouble is, they like the way it smells. When he gets an offer for $750,000, Monk is astonished. “I wrote it as a joke!” he says, to which Arthur replies, “Well, it’s the most lucrative joke you’ve ever written.”
But it’s also the thorniest, because Monk must create a persona for this nonexistent author while trying to hide the fact that he’s making tons of money – forget the $750,000 advance, how about the $4 million movie deal? – for work that repels him.
His moral quandary imperils his family relationships and his burgeoning romance with a neighbor (Erika Alexander), and it also leads Monk into fraught territory as he interrogates the kind of Black creativity that is accepted by white audiences. (“Black trauma porn,” mostly.)
But there’s no real tonal conflict between the lightness of the comedy and the import of the issues it is addressing; “American Fiction” runs on serious conversations that are never bogged down by being treated too seriously. This would be a significant accomplishment coming from any director, but for a first-timer to nail this delicate balance is astounding.
At one point toward the end of the film, Monk’s girlfriend and his brother eye him from across the patio. “What do you see in my brother?” Cliff asks.
“He’s funny,” says Coraline.
“No, he’s not funny.”
Coraline shrugs. “He’s sad funny.”
Cliff thinks about this for a minute. “I can see that.”
So maybe that’s what “American Fiction” is: sad funny. A rare thing, and a precious one.
“American Fiction” will be released by Orion/MGM.
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