Review: American Fiction

Some friends invited me to a movie club— like a book club, but with a movie— and this month’s movie was American Fiction, which I hadn’t seen previously. I was excited for a satire of racism in publishing, but the movie is at least half family drama. Which, by the way, is very good. Fantastic performances by Jeffrey Wright, Leslie Uggams, Sterling K. Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Erika Alexander. Actually all the performances in this movie are excellent, so let’s add Keith David, John Ortiz, Issa Rae, and Myra Lucretia Taylor, whose role was puzzling to me but whose performance was excellent.

But for me, the fact that the movie was as interested in the family stuff as it was in the satire kind of blunted the effect of the satire. I am a white person, and this satirical movie about racism did not make me the least bit uncomfortable, which seems like a sign of failure for a satire. Honestly, I would have preferred this movie focus on Monk trying to become less of an asshole and just left the book stuff out altogether.

But I found this movie problematic in a couple of ways. I can’t talk about this without spoiling big chunks of the movie, so if you haven’t seen it, stop here! I leave you with the thought that this is an incredibly well-acted, ambitious, somewhat over-long and thought-provoking movie that didn’t ultimately work for me. Okay, on to the spoilers!

Man, I hate a meta ending, especially since it seems to punish the viewer for getting invested in the family story. But since the ending suggests that Monk’s movie is going to be pandering to white people, I think it’s worth investigating the ways in which this movie panders, either consciously or unconsciously, to a white audience.

Let’s start with the low stakes—there are certainly life or death issues in this movie, but whether Monk’s retelling of a Greek tragedy (or maybe comedy? I don’t remember) is going to sell just isn’t one. A big theme in the movie is that there’s just not enough representation of wealthy black professionals. Which, okay, yes, I believe that, though casting Max from Living Single as the love interest kind of reminds us that this is an oversimplification. (She played a lawyer on that show! In the 90’s! You could look it up! Or watch it! Funny show!) But I guess I feel like given that racism actually kills people in the United States of America, Monk’s plight never seems urgent.

But, more importantly, and I don’t know how writer/director Cord Jefferson feels about this, but WOW does this movie hate poor black people. Which is, of course, comforting to a white audience! See, it’s okay if you look down on Black Vernacular English because Black people do too! Sick of hearing about Black men being murdered by police? It’s okay! Black people are too! Don’t let it trouble your conscience! Someone in the movie, I think it’s Issa Rae’s character, says, “white people don’t want the truth; they want absolution.” And that’s exactly what this movie gives us. The protagonist’s classist hatred of poor Black people absolves white people of any guilt they might feel about their own racist hatred of poor Black people.

And now let’s talk about the homophobia for a minute, shall we? We’re clearly supposed to side with Cliff when he’s rejected by his mom, okay, but there are three gay characters in this movie (and two anonymous twinks). One is a selfish, oversexed, coked-out party animal, and the other are classic queer-coded villains whose gayness is essential to their villainy. In other words, nobody gay in this movie is just a regular person, and the characters’ problematic behaviors and attitudes are inextricably linked to their gayness.

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