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American Fiction

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
American Fiction
Photograph: Curzon

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Twin titans Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K Brown light up a tart racial satire that blossoms into a deeply-felt family drama

The Oscars get a lot of stuff wrong – envelope mix-ups, mani cam, that whole night with James Franco and Anne Hathaway that no one ever talks about, Green Book – but they regularly redeem themselves by swinging a spotlight onto the worthy, but criminally under-heralded. And this year the Academy has seen Jeffrey Wright, too often a stalwart supporting turn on the big screen, and thought: yep, this guy can do a lot more than turn up and give Batman and 007 handy intel.

And what a vehicle this adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel ‘Erasure’ is for the erstwhile Felix Leiter. It’s his meatiest, and best, film role since his breakthrough as Jean-Michel Basquiat in Basquiat three whole decades ago.

In fact, it’s two of them. His worthy but low-selling writer Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison creates a literary alter ego, an ex-con called Stagg. R. Leigh, when his arm is twisted into writing a stereotypical ‘Black’ novel called ‘My Pafology’ (initially, he wants to call it ‘Fuck’). There’s no money in literature, his agent (John Ortiz) reasons. But tell a story of deprivation, drugs and crime in the ghetto, preferably involving a stretch in prison? Kerr-ching.

The comic potential in this scenario is more than fulfilled. Wright is hilarious both as the bemused, cranky Monk, watching on aghast as a fellow writer (Issa Rae) reads from her phony poverty memoir ‘We's Lives In Da Ghetto’ to a rapt white audience, and when he’s going full ‘gangsta’ as the growling Leigh.

It crystallises in a brilliantly silly subplot involving Adam Brody’s Hollywood producer hanging, almost visibly, on his every word in the hope that there’s an Oscar-winning adaptation in it.

American Fiction is a film that diagnoses the problem and presents a cure

The satire cuts across racial lines – writer-director Cord Jefferson doesn’t excuse Black writers who consciously deal in stereotypes – but white liberals, and their failure to understand the African-American experience on all but the most clichéd level, cop the brunt of the jabs. 

What’s really clever about Jefferson’s debut film, though, is how it does all this while simultaneously painting a rich portrait of Black family life. Sterling K Brown, highly deserving of his Oscar nomination, jousts with Monk as damaged, substance-abusing brother Cliff. His struggles with his sexuality, their dementia-suffering mum (Leslie Uggams), and the health issues of sister (Tracee Ellis Ross), a high-flying doctor, provide the best scenes.

With top performances and real heart, American Fiction is a film that diagnoses the problem and presents a cure.

In UK cinemas Feb 2

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Cord Jefferson
  • Screenwriter:Cord Jefferson
  • Cast:
    • Jeffrey Wright
    • John Ales
    • Issa Rae
    • John Ortiz
    • Patrick Fischler
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