Film Review | American Fiction

American Fiction, Image Credit: Orion Pictures

So, I hadn’t hit the movies in ages and thought, ‘Why not treat myself?’, right? Aquaman was top of my list cause I’m all about Marvel and DC. Doesn’t matter if the reviews are trash, I’m here for the superpower thrills, explosions, and those dope fight sequences – it feeds my inner child. However, scrolling through TikTok, I stumbled upon this trailer for American Fiction, which was released around the same time as Aquaman. What caught my attention? It had all these familiar faces, and an all-star Black cast.  I saw the second trailer released for the film, and I thought this will be comedy. So, I did some quick research on it and learned it’s about this Black writer challenging the stories being put out about Black culture which always revolve around stereotypical Black trauma. And I’m like, “Yea I def need to see this film” So, I ditched Aquaman for American Fiction. It just felt like the right move!

Film Review | American Fiction

The film American Fiction is a blend of drama, comedy, and suspense. Directed by Cord Jefferson in his first feature film, it has an all-star cast including Jeffrey Wright, Erika Alexander, Tracy Ellis Ross, Sterling K Brown, John Ortiz, and Issa Rae. The story begins with a provocative scene where Jeffrey Wright’s character, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a college professor, initiates a bold classroom discussion by writing the word “NI**ER” on the whiteboard. This act triggers varied reactions among the students, particularly one who finds it so unsettling that she leaves and reports Monk to the school administration.

This opening scene definitely captures the audience’s attention. I observed the mostly white audience, with only a few Black viewers, who were mature viewers like my mother’s crowd. It made me reflect on the film’s appeal and its audience demographics. Why does this film, and others like it, seem to draw more white viewers? Why aren’t more Black people attending these films in support? Is the film intended as an educational tool for white audiences, or does it somehow not resonate with Black viewers? These observations raise deeper questions about the role of ethnicity in film reception and the possibility of a film being universally appreciated as a piece of art, which goes beyond racial and ethnic boundaries.

In the film’s hilarious opening scene, the use of a highly controversial and offensive word “NI**ER” generated a mixture of laughter and cringe-worthy reaction among the audience. This moment created an immediate, intense reaction, setting the stage for the film’s thematic exploration and giving viewers an idea on what to expect for the rest of the movie. The plot centers around Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, portrayed by Jeffrey Wright, a middle-aged Black writer struggling with the industry’s neglect of his work. Frustrated by the mainstream success of other Black authors whose stories often revolve around stereotypical themes of Black trauma such as drug dealing, incarceration, absent fathers, and street violence—Monk seeks to offer a different narrative about Black life, one that isn’t confined to hardship, struggle, and pain.


In a bold move, Monk decides to write a fictional story under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh, presenting himself as an ex-convict on the run. His book, titled My Pafology, which he changed from “My Pathology”, receives immediate attention and notoriety, as well as lucrative offers from publishers, revealing a harsh truth: the publishing industry, dominated by white perspectives, seems more interested in publishing clichéd narratives of Black trauma rather than exploring the diversity of Black experiences.

Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, Photo Credit: Claire Folger, Orion

As Monk navigates his career as a Black writer, he also faces conflicts in his family and romantic life. The film delves into his journey of personal and professional growth, challenging his beliefs and values through interactions with those closest to him. This narrative invites the audience to reflect on broader issues of racial stereotyping in storytelling and the complexities of the Black experience. Jeffrey Wright portrays Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a character depicted as reserved and somewhat detached from the world. Monk leads a solitary life and is somewhat distant from his family. His siblings, Lisa Ellison, a doctor played by Traci Ellis Ross, and Clifford Ellison, portrayed by Sterling K. Brown, have different dynamics with Monk. He shares a closer bond with Lisa, engaging in various activities with her, unlike his strained relationship with Clifford.

Sterling K. Brown stars as Cliff, Photo Credit- Claire Folger, Orion

Clifford, who is queer, represents the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals within the Black community, a theme explored in the film. His strained relationship with Monk is partly due to Monk resembling their father, with whom Clifford had a difficult relationship. This tension is further highlighted by their mother Agnes Ellison, played by Leslie Uggams, who develops dementia and expresses difficulty in understanding Clifford’s sexuality, showcasing the lack of acceptance he faces within his family. Meanwhile, Monk, despite having published several books, struggles with the lack of widespread recognition for his work. This frustration is intensified by his views when he starts lowkey hatin’ on another Black writer, Sinatra Golden, played by Issa Rae. Sinatra’s work, which Monk perceives as a work that is continuing stereotypical narratives of Black trauma, gains significant attention, something Monk resents.

Erika Alexander stars as Coraline, Photo Credit- Orion

Monk’s perspective begins to change when he meets Coraline, played by Erika Alexander. Coraline not only appreciates Monk’s writings, but she also connects with Sinatra Golden’s works. This interaction opens Monk’s eyes to the diverse ways Black experiences and stories can resonate with readers, challenging his previously held views.

Myra Lucretia Taylor Plays Lorraine

A subplot I wanted to highlight in the film is the story of Lorraine, the housekeeper and caretaker for Monk’s mother. While Monk and his siblings are away, Lorraine not only fulfills her duties but also develops a romantic relationship with a local security guard who patrols the neighborhood. What sets this narrative apart is the depiction of Lorraine’s character. Unlike typical portrayals of housekeepers in films, where they are often ignored or viewed as less than, Jefferson presents Lorraine as an integral part of the family, which is a respect you see a lot more within the Hispanic community.

In many movies, caretakers and housekeepers are rarely shown receiving respect or being treated as equals. American Fiction breaks this mold, elevating Lorraine’s role to that of a family member rather than just an employee. Her relationship with the family is so strong that when she gets engaged, she asks Monk to walk her down the aisle and give her away at her wedding. This gesture beautifully illustrates the mutual respect and deep connection between Lorraine and Monk’s family, offering a refreshing and respectful portrayal of a housekeeper’s role in a household.

American Fiction explores the complexities of Black culture and experience, steering clear of the usual stereotypes. The film includes scenes that acknowledge the historical trauma in Black history, yet director Jefferson approaches these narratives through a fresh lens. Instead of focusing on these stereotypical themes, he uses the fictional works of Monk’s alter ego, Stagg R Leigh, and Sinatra Golden, to offer an alternative view of Black life.

The film examines the publishing industry’s role in pushing narrow-minded, stereotype-driven stories about Black people. It highlights the challenges Black authors face in breaking away from these expectations and the broader issue of how repetitive narratives of Black trauma are often the only stories presented to the public. Monk’s earlier work, which is overshadowed by The Pafology, aimed to present enriching, uplifting perspectives of the Black experience, aiming to empower the community rather than dwell on negative stereotypes. The film exposes the publishing industry’s bias and fascination with stereotypical narratives. In meetings with Monk, publishers are fascinated by his fictional persona as an ex-convict, fetishizing his use of slang and street language. This fascination underscores a bigger issue: the reluctance to embrace and publish stories that present positive, diverse narratives of Black life. American Fiction critiques the tendency to view Black culture through a narrow, stereotype-laden lens, calling for a broader and more inclusive understanding of what it means to be Black.

500 Days of Summer

500 Days of Summer is a movie I love for its unique cinematographic style and visual appeal. American Fiction shares a similar artistic style, particularly in its use of color and lighting. The film employs a warm, bright palette for joyful moments, while more serious scenes are shown with muted tones, conveying different moods that resonate emotionally with viewers. The narrative is linear, following a cause-and-effect structure that logically progresses through the film, making it easy for the audience to follow and connect with the evolving story.

Character development is another standout aspect. While some characters, like Monk, exhibit significant growth as they encounter different challenges and change their perspectives, others like his brother Cliff remain constant, unaffected by the trials they face. This contrast gives the film some depth. The cinematography often feels intimate with close-up shots in serious or intense moments, drawing the viewer closer and creating a deeper connection with the characters. The film is shot with a modern eye but retains an indie aesthetic, adding to its unique style.

In scenes featuring Monk with his family, the lighting is usually brighter, often set against beach backdrops. The sun, ocean, and the overall scenic beauty symbolize Monk’s happiness and lighter mood when he’s with his family or his girlfriend. Scenes focusing on his writing career typically are set in office environments with business attire and a lack of diversity, using darker tones and lighting. This contrast in settings and color schemes effectively showcases the differing moods of Monk’s personal and professional life, enhancing the film’s thematic and visual storytelling.

Watching American Fiction, I was prompted to reflect on the diversity within the Black experience. Being Black myself, the film underscored that our racial identity doesn’t mean we have the same set of experiences. The differences in our stories don’t diminish our Blackness; rather, they enrich it with a multitude of narratives and perspectives.

This realization became particularly bittersweet in a mostly white audience. Their reactions, especially laughter at moments not necessarily intended for them, highlighted the need for ongoing education and dialogue. It’s crucial for society to recognize that Black individuals, while sharing a common racial identity, come from a vast array of backgrounds and experiences. Some of the stereotypical narratives portrayed in media might resonate with certain individuals within the Black community, but they certainly do not represent everyone. This film, for me, reinforced the idea that our collective understanding of Blackness needs to be broadened. Recognizing and appreciating the diverse stories and perspectives within the Black community is essential in moving towards a more inclusive and accurate portrayal of what it means to be Black.

When I first decided to peep American Fiction, my expectations were not high since I had only seen the trailer and hadn’t researched the film further. To my surprise, the film turned out to be dope. The engaging experience blended drama, suspense, and comedy to present the Black experience from a different angle. The cinematography and stylistic choices of the film stood out to me, contributing to its broad appeal. It didn’t conform to the conventional style of what many categorize as a “Black film,” transcending such labels to just be a film, period.

Often, films with Black directors and casts are automatically labeled as “Black films,” but American Fiction breaks this mold. It’s a film for anyone who appreciates a good storyline, visually artistic cinematography, and rich dialogue. It offers a learning opportunity for all viewers, regardless of race. This film made me especially aware of audience reactions, as it drew a diverse crowd unlike the predominantly Black audiences typically seen at “Black” films. American Fiction chooses to educate its viewers in an unconventional manner. If I were to rate it, I would give American Fiction a 4.7 out of 5 stars. While I don’t really give 5-star ratings, this film stands out as one of the best I’ve seen in 2023. Its ability to engage and educate a diverse audience while presenting a fresh perspective on the Black experience is fire.