With “American Fiction,” Cord Jefferson, best known for penning television episodes of “Succession” and “Watchmen,” helms one of the finest directorial debuts seen since Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty.” In the style that feels like an audacious blend of the screenplays of Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” and Nicole Holofcener’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” he shepherds an audacious dramedy anchored by a career-best and Oscar-worthy performance from star Jeffrey Wright. After debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s a movie that could be a contender for the coveted TIFF Audience Award, and it would be deserved.
Based on the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett, the film follows author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Wright), a frustrated novelist who is fed up with the establishment profiting from “Black” entertainment that relies on tired and offensive tropes. To prove his point, Monk writes an outlandish “Black” book that propels him to the heart of hypocrisy and madness. It is quite a timely topic as Black content continues to face challenges in the entertainment world.
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The film also stars Emmy nominee Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Adam Brody, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander and Leslie Uggams.
Wright, 57, has been among the most respected actors for decades. He won a Tony Award for his role as Belize in Tony Kushner’s masterpiece “Angels in America.” He reprised the same role for the HBO miniseries adaptation, adding an Emmy Award to his mantle. He’s also picked up additional Emmy noms for HBO’s “Westworld” and Disney’s “What If…?”
Like other journeyman actors who garnered recognition late in their careers, such as Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor” or David Strathairn for “Good Night and Good Luck,” Wright could find himself in contention for lead actor. His deadpan and perfect comedic timing will simply irresistible, and the Actors Branch could feel the same.
In addition to “American Fiction,” he’ll get a boost from his role in Colman Domingo’s Oscar hopeful “Rustin.” In George C. Wolfe’s biopic, Wright plays Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a brief but calculated turn that only aids Domingo in his revelatory performance. There’s only been one time in Oscar history when more than one Black actor that didn’t include either Will Smith or Denzel Washington was nominated for the leading prize – 2004 with Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”) and winner Jamie Foxx (“Ray”). This could be a year to see the second occurrence.
Jefferson has been beloved in the TV world, winning a WGA prize for penning episodes of “Succession” in 2020, the same year he won an Emmy for writing the “Watchmen” episode “This Extraordinary Being,” which he shared with Damon Lindelof.
A movie about the industry, that plays like it isn’t about the industry, is something the Academy will gobble up. Brown and Alexander are superb in their roles, and although short on screen time, they make an indelible impression.
An Emmy winner for NBC’s drama “This Is Us,” Brown knows how to connect to any character he portrays, fully committing to their heartache and pain. Already proving he could deliver in feature roles like his snubbed work in “Waves” (2019), he knocks his performance as Monk’s recently divorced and gay brother Cliff, out of the park.
Alexander, best known for playing Maxine on the classic sitcom “Living Single,” lights up the screen as Coraline, a beach house neighbor and love interest for Monk. Emulating what Virginia Madsen was able to elicit in “Sideways,” this role is a wonderful reminder of how talented and vital she is to this industry and should be afforded more opportunities to shine.
I was also impressed by the crafts, particularly the inventive and whimsical score by Laura Karpman, sharing a kinship to Rolfe Kent’s beloved work. I’d love to see her contributions recognized, making her only the 11th woman nominated for best original score.
If handled and campaigned correctly, it could be an across-the-board player, and it should be. Jefferson’s smart screenplay and intelligent direction add to a movie that could excite various industry demographics.
The film is distributed by MGM, now a subsidiary of Amazon, which is coming off its best picture nomination for “Women Talking” (2022), which walked away with the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for its writer and director Sarah Polley.
Let’s push this one even further.
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