Arts and Entertainment

Funny, But Sad Funny.

American Fiction follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison as he struggles to choose between his self-respect as a Black author and his responsibility to provide for his sick mother.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

An adaptation of Erasure, Percival Everett’s 2001 satirical novel, American Fiction (2023) centers around Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a Black writer struggling to regain his footing. After attending the conference of fellow Black author Sinatra Golden (Issa Rae), Monk is horrified by the realization that in order to be paid, he must mock Black culture for the appeal of white readers in his writing. Golden’s book is titled We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, and the excerpt she shares permeates with African-American stereotypes and slang. Fed up with the disparity in his works’ reception and spurred on by the financial stress of caring for his dementia-ridden mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams), Monk facetiously writes a pandering book of his own titled My Pafology. Much to his surprise, his joke is taken seriously by publishing agencies and film production studios. Monk is offered a generous advance for his book, sending him down a path of humorous yet depressing attempts to make people understand his intentions. In his struggle, Monk is forced to choose between his dignity as a Black writer and his desperate need for cash.

Monk desperately tries to get people to see how much of a mockery his book is, using “Stagg R. Leigh” (a misspelled version of the name “Stagger Lee,” taken from an African American folk song) as his pseudonym and renaming My Pafology to F---. To his surprise, his oblivious publishing agency bends to and applauds his whims. 

American Fiction was advertised as a comedy, and for the most part, it is. However, this film’s humor is unique in that it doesn’t let the endless jokes distract from the characters’ situation. When Monk and his editor give in to writing “Blacker” to make money, it’s amusing– until the film reminds audiences of how serious his mother’s Alzheimer’s has become, showing her stumbling on the beach in search of her dead daughter.

Monk’s family hardship is crucial to the development of his book. While writing My Pafology in a burst of anger, Monk’s characters come to life around him as stereotypical gangsters hiding from the police. Though it intends to mock the caricatures of Black people that appear in Golden’s book, the fight between his characters reveals Monk’s inability to grapple with his own emotions of self-hate and stress regarding his mother’s expenses. 

Sterling Brown does an incredible job of conveying this conflict as Monk’s gay brother, Clifford. While the contrast between his eccentricity and Monk’s rationality cracks up the audience, they additionally reinforce the burden that comes with his sexual identity. In the film’s second half, Clifford tells Monk that he wishes he had come out to their father before he died. Clifford would have wanted him to know the truth, even if doing so would worsen his opinion of him. It’s a clear poke at Monk’s main dilemma: sacrificing his ideals to make some money.

American Fiction makes a much-needed statement about how the media promotes demeaning characterizations of Black people. Films and TV shows have long since pushed the image of Black thugs and criminals with no further aspirations, depicting the issues that pervade the community while ignoring the socioeconomic circumstances that breed them. Monk’s F--- blatantly pandered to white people and their digestible view of Black culture, but his book wasn’t the first of its kind.

Sinatra offers an alternative perspective to Monk’s beliefs, though the film questions its validity. We’s Lives in Da Ghetto was objectively a stereotypical book, but Sinatra confides to Monk that it was the product of extensive research and interviews. Arguably, Sinatra represented a real part of the Black community. Monk’s critique of her book stemmed from his well-off middle-class upbringing, which fostered resentment of AAVE, rap, or other signs of “blackness.”

The film wraps up just as fruitlessly as it began: with Monk talking and nobody listening. F--- wins a literary contest, but before Monk can come clean, the film cuts away to a production set. It’s revealed that since publishing F---, the film’s events are being adapted into a major motion picture. Out of ideas, Monk halfheartedly suggests an ending where a squad of cops break into the award show and shoot him up, which the director loves. Monk’s opinions are once again discarded in favor of monetary gain, and nothing is truly resolved by the film’s end

American Fiction acknowledges the line between representation and pandering. When Monk crosses it, the audience gets a glimpse into the reality of how ridiculous stereotypes are still upheld in the media. However, though Monk sees writers like Sinatra and her readers as hacks, he can’t correct a culture simply because he rejects it. Monk is forced to choose between his ideals and helping those he cares for. By the film’s end, it is unclear if those values have prevailed—but Monk has been forever changed, even if society hasn’t.