“American Fiction” Is More Than Its Satire

This essay about American Fiction is part of a series of deep-dive works of criticism about films nominated for the 2024 Oscars released the week before the ceremony. 


The laughs are plentiful and sharp in American Fiction, but they also ring hollow.

It’s not that the film isn’t funny. Writer/director Cord Jefferson’s adaption of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure is a cerebral dramedy that at its most outlandish borders on farcical.

Frustrated by a stalled academic career and the dwindling book publishing prospects for his modern reworking of Ancient Greek plays, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison’s (Jeffrey Wright) resentment turns to bitterness about the kinds of stories Black writers are allowed to tell. He devises a plan: He will write a purposefully stereotypical manuscript to mock the white liberal appetite for Black trauma porn that underlies the publishing industry.

Monk instructs his agent to submit his book to editors, only to become horrified as he realizes that instead of getting the joke, publishers and audiences alike salivate over his over-the-top caricatures. The book sells to the largest numbers of Monk’s career.

When it comes to the pressures faced by Black artists in exceedingly white industries, we’ve heard it before. Even in the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes lamented the double-consciousnesses forced upon him as a Black writer in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” (His take? “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too.”) In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled are both parodies that have stood the test of time. In the last decade alone, the proliferation of comedies preoccupied with — gasp! — what white people think of us have become too many to name, though Kenya Barris’ work on Black-ish and Justin Simien’s Dear White People admittedly first come to mind.

As a racial satire American Fiction is just satisfactory; it brings little new to the table. But I don’t believe that was ever Cord Jefferson’s point. American Fiction never found Monk’s value in his ability to lay bare the absurdity of whiteness.

The scene that everyone seems to remember best is far removed from the satirical comedy about expectations forced onto Black creators. Instead, Monk — still in the midst of giving the death of one family member and knee-deep in the relentless financial and familial responsibilities that come with caring for his mother’s long term illness — is greeted by his younger brother, Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), clad in swim shorts and doing coke off their coffee table in the family’s Massachusetts beach house living room.

Cliff, who, in his late 40s, recently came out after his wife caught him in bed with another man, is living his messiest gay years exuberantly! Some of it is a blast. Cliff never seems to lack for attractive men to keep his company. He tells Monk that he’s making up for lost time. Every story of his wild nights seems to out-due the one before, even if the college kids at his local gay bar keep mistaking him for Tyler Perry (ouch). Sterling K. Brown has never lacked for charisma on camera and as Cliff, he eats it up.

But there’s a knife’s edge to his carelessness. A party mask that’s barely concealing his spiral. After his wife left, Cliff says his kids started to hate him. And, even if there were previous family suspicions, he regrets that his father died before he knew who his son really was. Monk and Cliff’s mother Agnes (the incomparable Leslie Uggams) has dementia. When Cliff is able to calm her down during one of her episodes by playing an old record and slow dancing with her across her bedroom floor, she manages to remember him — gently stroking his face and cooing, seemingly lovingly, “I knew you were never a queer.”

This is what has led to the coke incident.

Cliff miscalculated and forgot that today is a family event. Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), the Ellisons’ longtime housekeeper and cook, is marrying Maynard (Raymond Anthony Thomas), a local security guard, at the family’s small and deteriorating beach house on Martha’s Vineyard. Monk is meant to walk her down the aisle. Cliff is meant to be back home in Arizona. Instead he skipped his flight, found two young men in their 20s, and when Monk walks through the door with Lorraine and their mother, Cliff rushes to wipe the coke off the table, his face somewhere between apology and shame. Monk, who until now has had a complicated but nonetheless warm relationship with his brother, tells Cliff to get out. Lorraine steps in.

She wants Cliff to stay for the wedding. The last thing Cliff wants to be is a burden. She reaches the softness of her arms up around his neck to embrace him: He can’t be a burden, he’s family.

The 20somethings offer to make Lorraine a smoothie, which is the least they can do, and she laughs. Later, after the wedding, all of the attendees are dancing together on the porch. Monk, reticent as always, stands a bit off to the side. Cliff interrupts his brother’s thoughts to remind him, it’s ok to let other people in sometimes. It’s a gift being paid forward. Lorraine reminded Cliff that he is loved, Cliff in turn reminds his brother. Monk has foregone so much for a writing career in academia, forced into boxes of white projections, in a playing field surrounded by whiteness. He finds himself swathed in a loneliness that is unbearable. But somehow here he is now, standing across from his brother, once estranged, now each finding each other anew.

The two scenes, back-to-back, knocked the wind out of me. And they’re arguably the moments that led to Brown’s first-time Oscar nomination this year for Best Supporting Actor. (Wright is also nominated, also a first, for Best Lead Actor.)

It’s stunning, then, that early readers counseled Cord Jefferson that the wedding scenes didn’t move the film’s narrative forward. “In the vast majority of movies in which you have characters like Lorraine and Maynard, they’re going to be on-screen for all of five minutes to say some expository dialogue, and then they disappear,” Jefferson told The New Yorker about the pushback.

But Jefferson knew the heart of his project lay in the quiet, sweet love story of two working class Black people, in a gay Black man in his 40s fighting his self-loathing. “One of the things that roots the story and keeps it grounded is these kinds of character beats where you sort of live with these people, and it starts to feel like, Oh, I’m watching something that feels real to life. And it’s not just a silly slapstick comedy.”

After Lorraine and Maynard’s wedding, Cliff approaches Monk to remind him that he doesn’t have to be alone. But what’s more true is that Monk was never alone in the first place.

When he first arrives in Boston, Monk is greeted by his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross, in a career best) assuring him that his writing changes lives. After all, his latest book kept her wobbly table from falling over, and what’s more life changing than that? She chides him that he doesn’t just work far away, he disappears into himself, and she says it in such a way that you know she’s his bridge back out of whatever internal darkness he goes into.

Cliff teases and calls Monk “Detective Dictionary” whenever his curmudgeonly attention to grammar becomes too much to bear. He tricks his brother into a pool, while still fully dressed, before letting him know “I forgot to tell you… I peed in the water.” He jokes with Monk’s new girlfriend, Coraline (Erika Alexander): What could she possibly even see with him?

In a recent Variety interview with Taraji P. Henson, Jeffrey Wright reflected that in his nearly 35 year career — American Fiction was the first time had ever been cast within a family. She was speechless, after all family life is such a common part of Black cinema. But really, it’s only common in a certain kind of Black cinema. It’s common in the movies we make for ourselves. The movies that white people tend to ignore. In the films that Jeffrey Wright stars in, movies about tortured geniuses and political intrigue, movies that are often touted as Oscar-bait… those scripts don’t offer their Black people that kind of respite, of love.

It doesn’t feel coincidental that American Fiction is Cord Jefferson’s film debut. Jefferson’s television credits range from Master of None and The Good Place to Station Eleven and Watchmen, the latter of which also earned him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Limited Series. He cast three generations of truly seminal Black TV comedic talent as the women who surround Monk (1990s Living Single’s Erika Alexander as Coraline, 2000s Girlfriend’s Tracee Ellis Ross as Lisa, and 2010s Insecure’s Issa Rae as Monk’s adversary, Sinatra Golden). Alexander has spoken about the care and honor with which Jefferson treated her: “He explained his vision and my part in it. When someone tells you that he’s imagined you in that space and invites you to play, with no audition — like ‘I know who you are, and I know what you’re capable of’ — you say yes.”

Erika Alexander and Tracee Ellis Ross, two actresses who got their starts in sitcoms that aired on then-fledgling networks touting “Black line ups” in a desperate grab for viewers, are a part of an Oscar-nominated film. This is Jeffrey Wright’s first time, ever in his career, getting to play within a family.  Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown are now Oscar-nominated actors. Cord Jefferson is nominated for an adapted screenplay Oscar, for his first film. American Fiction doesn’t have to bring home a statue to have already made history on our own terms.

I joked with a friend that my deep love for American Fiction (a film that people seem to either feel charmed by or roll their eyes at in equal measure) came from over-identifying with Monk. And I suppose there’s truth to that. Like Monk, I have a PhD and I’ve worked in academia. Like Monk, the majority of my day is based in some measure on navigating what white people will think of my writing and what the work I produce says (or doesn’t say) about Blackness. I know the self-destructive, bone-deep exhaustion that comes from building your livelihood out of overthinking. The isolation that comes when the person you spend the most time with is the keyboard for your laptop.

But I keep thinking about the year I decided to leave academia, and how ashamed I felt. So ashamed, in fact, that I didn’t tell most of my family. I had spent ten years of my life working towards a degree, putting everything else on hold, missing birthdays and holidays, unanswered text messages that had grown to the point of people deciding it was best not to text at all. And for what? What could I tell them now?

That summer, there was a cookout at my aunt’s house. My aunt threw the kinds of parties where you’d never have a moment’s peace, which was just fine by me. There is no better place to hide your depression than in plain sight. At some point that afternoon though, my cousin grabbed me by the wrist. They took me outside to their car and we sat together in silence, the party still going on all around us. I laid my head against the back of the seat and closed my eyes so tight that sparks of red rippled like fire beneath the thin skin of my eyelids.

They played music to drown out the noise. And I cried. They didn’t ask, or push, or say anything at all really. Not until I was done. But when I was done, they turned so that our bodies faced each other and held my hands in theirs. They had already heard that I was leaving school (the family gossip tree, I am sure) and for them, none of that had mattered. What mattered was that I knew I wasn’t alone.

There is a photo of me that I love. I’m about 12 or 13. It’s Christmas Day, and we’re spending it in a cramped Brooklyn apartment with no less than five different branches of my very Puerto Rican family tree. Growing up, Christmas meant watching NBA basketball in the backroom of that apartment, which was also my cousins’ bedroom. At any given moment there would be between three and nine of us, all of us piled onto the same twin bed. We compared Christmas gifts and sat on each other’s head and played music over the game and inevitably one of the boys would fart or make wet armpit sounds or do something else equally unfortunate for sharing close quarters with that many people. Then they would get kicked out, but they’d come back with food as an apology, and usually by then older cousins (who were already in college) had shown up and would teach the younger ones some new great thing to do with our hair or the proper tips for lip gloss, and it would start all over again.

In my memory, there are always so many of us. Just this loud ass amoeba of intertwined limbs and basketball scores and music and fart noises and makeup tips. In my memory, we are one.

But in this photo, my favorite photo, I am laying on the twin bed alone reading a book. It’s most certainly Christmas, because I remember getting those navy blue overalls that morning. Sometimes if I squint hard enough, I can even remember the book. It was hefty, the kind of book you prop up on the bed because it’s too heavy for your tween-sized arms.

I know I’m looking up at the photographer, vaguely annoyed to have been disturbed. But there is no cousin pushing me up against the wall. No one is fighting for the remote. There’s not even anyone bringing me a plate. Just this one book-ish Black Puerto Rican kid, who somehow found a way, in an apartment full of people, to read a book by herself.

Except that kid wasn’t alone that day. And she wasn’t alone roughly 15 years later sitting in her cousin’s car crying as a life she had dedicated to books fell apart. Like Monk, like Cliff, my bottoming out was met by family who saw the faintest spark in me that I couldn’t see in myself.

If American Fiction wins an Academy Award on Sunday, it is most likely to be Cord Jefferson for Best Adapted Screenplay. I sincerely hope that it wins. And not because of some twist of calculated irony where a majority-white Academy missed the point of a film satirizing their lust for Black trauma, and instead are now falling over themselves to prove their bleeding liberal heart.

But I hope it wins because it would have been so easy for American Fiction to have been exactly that type of satire. It could have been a sharp but soulless parody that manipulates white guilt the whole way into awards season and turns its Black characters into thinly drawn cut outs, mouthpieces. The blueprint was right there in front of them. Instead, despite what many reviews — and even its own PR campaign — might say, American Fiction is not very interested in white people at all.

Black nerds with depressive disorders don’t have to settle for the rules of a white playing field. Messy Black gay adults can come home. Black actors who have stood on the outside of white Hollywood for decades can make it to the “Big Show” by living up to our own standards of excellence, Black actors who have long been seen as “insiders” can finally be a part of a family that looks like them on-screen. At every level, loneliness does not have to be our only option.

We can be greedy. We can have it all. Hell, our final wish can be that we lived a life so full that we leave this earth “under the heaving thrusts of a sweaty Idris Elba.”

American Fiction reminds us of that. Some of us still need those reminders.


American Fiction is now available to rent.

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Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 700 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. Carmen, this was really exceptional. One of my favorite pieces of yours that I’ve read.

    Thanks for being so vulnerable and open in this space. Thanks for helping us see you.

  2. This review was beautiful, and so was the movie. It raised the standards for me for what a satire/social critique movie can accomplish, as the family storyline was so emotionally grounded and relatable without preventing the movie from being uninterruptedly clever, hilarious, and pointed. It definitely deserves to win best adapted screenplay, and personally was my favorite of the whole bunch even though I know it unfortunately doesn’t have a chance at best picture.

    • Well, you were right on both accounts! It did end up winning Adapted Screenplay and lost for Best Picture, but every time I saw the cast and Cord last night I lit up — so I’m gonna go count that as a win <3

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