American Fiction

Here we go again.  Another current Oscar-nominated movie on a streamer.  This one is American Fiction, and it’s very good.  It’s adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, and works as both a satire on US racial politics and as domestic drama.   

Jeffrey Wright plays Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, writer and college humanities professor.   When we first meet him he’s giving a class in the southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor.  The title of one of her short stories is written on the blackboard behind him: The Artificial N**ger (in full, no asterisks).  A cross-looking student puts up her hand.  What’s wrong?  He asks.  That word, she replies.  He feigns innocence and says he’s sure he’s got it right, it does have two g’s.   She doesn’t like his jokey tone.  She says she’s offended.  He points out that if he, a black man, can get over it, so should she.  No dice.  She goes off and complains to the college authorities who ever so politely suspend him, suggesting he could do with a break, concentrate on his writing for a while and so on in weaselly fashion. 

He’s already my hero at this point.  He’s an educated professional who happens to be black but does not want this fact to define him or his work.  He’s a published author of serious fiction that is not self-consciously black.  Unfortunately for him this is not what gets you ahead of the game in academia these days.  Nor does it sell. 

His agent tells him that his latest manuscript has been rejected for not being black enough.  He shows Monk a copy of the latest literary sensation, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, by a black woman writer.  Monk snorts with derision at her hypocrisy:  she’s a middle-class academic like himself.  What does she honestly know about life in the ghetto? 

Nevertheless, says the agent, if Monk wants to sell books, this is the kind of thing he should be writing.  And God knows he needs the money.  His mother is ailing and will soon need full-time care and he can’t rely on his siblings for help. 

Brooding resentfully over his keyboard he dashes off a novel full of black stereotypes: tough-talking crims and hoods whose anti-social behaviour is all, naturally, down to racist oppression.  He initially types the title My Pathology, but soon changes that to My Pafology, and goes to town throughout on the dialect of the black underclass.  He makes up a fake author – a wanted man on the run from the law supposedly writing under the pseudonym Stagg R Leigh (‘Stagger Lee’ being the badass antihero of an old blues ballad).     

Monk takes My Pafology to his agent, to show him how easy it is to do this kind of thing.  He says it’s a joke – a kind of middle finger to the publishing world, but the agent likes it.  He thinks it could sell, but not as a literary prank, only as an authentic memoir of black victimhood.   He’s got to publish as Stagg R Leigh and hide his true authorship.   

Monk is reluctant but the agent sends the manuscript off – now with the even more transgressive title Fuck – and sure enough, it’s snapped up and becomes a best-seller.   

There follows lots of hilarious business as Monk tries to deal with the newfound fame and fortune of his Frankensteinian creation.  Everyone wants a piece of Stagg R Leigh.  Movie execs are after him, it’s nominated for a major literary award (Monk is on the judging panel!) and there’s a very funny sequence in which Monk has to do a TV interview in the inarticulate persona of Stagg R Leigh, suitably silhouetted to protect his identity.  The FBI gets in on the act and (in one of several possible endings) they storm one of the publicity events to arrest this dangerous albeit fictional fugitive.

American Fiction is a terrific satire on academia, literary fashion, racial identity politics and the cult of celebrity, but it has its thoughtful side.  It takes seriously the ethical issues faced by black creatives such as Monk, and it’s also a quite powerful domestic drama, as Monk struggles with complicated family dynamics that are no laughing matter, although I would have been happy with the satirical stuff.