American Fiction is an entertaining family drama with bursts of cultural commentary that skirts the line of playing it safe and going right for the head. Billed as a comedy by most critics and even the marketing campaign, I was surprised by how little comedy there was in the film and how much more of a family focused film it became while putting its main story on the backburner. Perhaps I was hoping for something a little more biting and edgy, but I feel somewhat let down by American Fiction if only because it feels like they were on to something really entertaining.
Monk (Jeffrey Wright) is a published author and University Professor who finds himself growing more and more disdainful with the current literary climate of the times. A writer of serious works himself, Monk is often an outsider because he can’t quite interact with people without coming off as condescending. When family tragedy strikes and money becomes a necessity, Monk decides to try his hand at appealing to the masses by writing a book about what white people want to read as “the black experience”. What started out more as a joke then becomes more serious as people respond well to his joke of a novel, leaving Monk in a curious position.
Leading up to awards season American Fiction was high on my list after being received well at film festivals and many noting Wright’s performance as a standout. As is the case with anything, I believe I went into the film with some preconceived notions about what the story would be and it really turned me around that the film was only about 20% comedy, most of it being a drier comedy. I didn’t expect as involved a family drama as I witnessed, but I wasn’t disappointed by the familial aspect. There are many beautiful moments between Wright and his siblings that stick with you long after the movie.
American Fiction toys with some fantastic ideals in regard to race and especially the guilt and absolution some white people seek at all turns, but I felt like it was pulling some punches and never totally went for the jugular like I was hoping it would. The jokes and social commentary are very funny, but they feel safe in comparison to the conversations Wright starts himself with his frustration at other black authors who only write stories about tragedy and lowliness for Black people. There’s this whole notion about telling empowering stories for all audiences, rather than catering to what the media is peddling for mass “simpler” audiences and it just feels like they missed the mark on making something truly standout. The performances, particularly from Sterling K Brown, are terrific and I still did really enjoy the film despite feeling like it didn’t totally cross the finish line.
Listen to the full audio review below on our podcast page, or through any of the following platforms!