Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction. © Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Cord Jefferson’s recent film, American Fiction, is garnering praise this awards season for its satirical approach to Black representation in both literature and film. Based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, it tells the story of Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, a disgruntled novelist tired of having his talents and success confined by rampant racial stereotypes. Monk writes a novel exaggerating all the clichés he disdains—and laying bare the absurdity of an industry that values such work. When the book is an instant hit, Monk must sort out the material highs and moral lows of (unintentionally) selling out.
Like Percival Everett, and Monk in the film, Cord Jefferson is a Black author, and American Fiction marks his debut as a film director. Originally an editor at the pioneering and controversial website Gawker, Jefferson transitioned to writing for television in 2017. He quickly gained industry recognition, winning an Emmy for an episode of HBO’s The Watchmen (2019), a critically acclaimed series based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, reimagined as involving anti-Black racist violence in present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Percival Everett’s Erasure is not an obvious source for one of the 10 movies nominated for a Best Picture award at this year’s Academy Awards. A sprawling metatextual work, it features a novel within a novel; it also contains lists of short story ideas, conversations between famous historical figures, and a conference paper on semiotics. Such a cerebral novel would seem impossible source material for even a seasoned screenwriter.
Yet American Fiction—with a star-studded Black cast led by Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Elllis Ross, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, and Sterling K. Brown—was a hit with audiences from the start, winning the People’s Choice Award at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, and the support of film critics around the world.
Part of the film’s success can be attributed to the inventive ways Jefferson adapted the original text, in part by creating a film within a film. Story elements and character relationships are folded and refigured, maintaining impact while leaving space for moments of reflection in the two-hour runtime. What emerges is a film that stands on its own, resonating with audiences regardless of familiarity with the source material.
Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, his name a composite of jazz musician Thelonious Sphere Monk and novelist Ralph Ellison, carries some traits of his famous namesakes. He is a talented author of esoteric literary works with a dark wit, a combination of temper and whimsy, reminiscent of improvisational jazz—inaccessible to some, spellbinding to others.
When Monk first sends out a draft of My Pafology, his agent’s skepticism can be reduced to his line “white people think they want the truth, but they don’t, they just want to feel absolved.” It is an absolution that leaves stereotypes undisturbed, amplified even, as tokenization gives way to the universalization of particular Black lived experiences. Amid performative praise, Monk reckons with having reinforced market appetites for Black trauma porn with a book initially written as a revolt against these demeaning white appetites.
The film’s ending is deliberately ambiguous regarding the path forward for artists navigating this landscape. “This is a movie that doesn’t offer easy answers. It is up for interpretation and allows people to understand things or not understand things,” Jefferson said of the film’s anti-resolution in a Letterboxd interview.
Audiences are left to debate questions such as, How do we support and foster Black artists without pigeonholing them? and, How do we honor the reality of Black trauma without essentializing it?
Obviously, such questions cannot be answered by any one person—or any one film, for that matter. However, ambiguity can also be noncommittal. Ultimately, the potential weakness of American Fiction is the same as that of My Pafology: if misinterpreted by film audiences (and producers), the cycle of fetishization continues, and posed questions go acknowledged but unanswered.
“If this movie can do anything,” Jefferson told one interviewer, “hopefully it cracks the door open a little bit more for filmmakers … who are trying to tell stories that feel a little different, that people might not believe … there’s a market for.” Will American Fiction set a new industry precedent for atypical racial satire? We’ll have to wait and see.
Zenzelé Soa-Clarke is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research