Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘American Fiction’ is more than meets the eye

The Best Picture nomination is punch-packed with intense performances, rich humor and important questions
Image courtesy of IMDb
Image courtesy of IMDb

“American Fiction” is not the movie one might expect it to be. The trailer advertises the film as a  dramedy about a Black author who writes a satire of the stereotypical Black culture books he hates — only for the publishing industry to take it seriously as the next bestseller. The movie is about that, with plenty of comedic moments, insightful conversations on being Black in today’s society and commentary on the literary and entertainment industry. But past the surface layer of the marketed satiric dramedy is a heartfelt and complicated family drama that navigates sibling dynamics, parental relationships and individual identity.

The film largely follows Thelonious Ellison, or Monk (played by Jeffrey Wright), as he struggles to grapple with his career in the growing “woke” age, along with his strained relationship with his siblings and his mother’s mental decline. Wright’s performance is a slow one, made up of small silences, raised eyebrows and overall melancholy. Monk is a person just trying to figure himself out while his life crumbles around him; something many college students can relate to to some degree. Wright has been nominated as Best Actor at the Golden Globe, SAG Awards and Oscars, accolades that are all well deserved.

The screenplay is adapted from Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure,” by Cord Jefferson, a writer and director known for his work on “The Good Place,” “Watchmen” and “Succession.” Jefferson doesn’t shy away from any of the complicated questions this movie provokes, primarily those of race and culture as a commodity in the modern age. During Black History Month, those issues are more prevalent than ever, as people and corporations partake in performative activism.

“American Fiction” forces audiences, particularly white audiences, to confront their own prejudices and to examine whether they’ve been complicit in racism, even unknowingly. The film could have easily taken the nearly two-hour screen time to examine these questions, but it didn’t just do that. Instead, the contemplative nature of the film is only one piece of the puzzle; the rest, a heartbreaking family drama. The elements are woven together flawlessly, making it worthy of that Best Picture Oscar nomination.

One of the most compelling supporting characters in “American Fiction” is Clifford Ellison, Monk’s brother. Played by Sterling K. Brown, Cliff recently divorced after his wife caught him in bed with a man. He’s coming to terms with his sexuality, problems with drug use and an abundance of casual hookups, unsure how to deal with the cards life has dealt him. His role is nothing short of impactful and watching the character navigate sexuality, family dynamics and identity make for some of the best moments of the film. The Academy thinks so too, earning Brown a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. While even Brown himself is doubtful he’ll win, the nomination is surely deserved.

While Wright and Brown are the standouts of “American Fiction,” great performances are abundant in this film. Tracee Ellis Ross plays Lisa, sister to Monk and Cliff. While her role is small, she was my personal favorite in the film. Ross commands the screen, making a lasting impression despite low screen time. Another standout performance was that of Issa Rae who plays the author of the book “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” which Monk despises. Her role is also small, but greatly important, delivering lines that are at the heart of the film’s questions.

The only thing about this film that I didn’t love was the ambiguous ending. It leaves the viewer in a bit of suspended belief with no true conclusion and a head bouncing with questions. While the ending is elusive, the conclusion is thought-provoking enough to linger in one’s head for weeks to come.

“American Fiction” is the type of film to get lost in all the Oscar season buzz. Up against big name favorites like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” it’s easy to forget that this film exists. But “American Fiction” shouldn’t be forgotten. It raises extremely important questions about race, is jam packed with great performances and overall has some decent laughs. As a particular bonus for Massachusetts residents, it takes place in Boston with some scenes filmed in Scituate and Brookline. “American Fiction” is a film that is certainly worth watching.

Shannon Moore can be reached at [email protected] or followed on X @shannon_moore04.

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    NikkiFeb 29, 2024 at 7:44 pm

    I totally agree and enjoyed the film immensely. I think it’s one of Sterling K. Brown’s best performances. Truly worthy of the nomination.