Thursday 8 February 2024

How to get ahead in publishing: "American Fiction"

Among this year's Best Picture contenders, Cord Jefferson's American Fiction most readily tessellates with The Holdovers, and it isn't just the two films' shared backdrop of fraught academia. So primed is this comedy-drama for its eventual small-screen debut (on Prime Video, no less) that it comes as faintly surprising that it doesn't come with a closing-credit dedication to the recently deceased Norman Lear, who spent the 1970s and 80s perfecting a blend of sitcom and soap that, in the face of a wider indifference from white network chiefs, aimed to communicate something astute and non-prescriptive about African-American lives. Jefferson's film starts out funny, introducing Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, exasperated lit professor and blocked writer, as he struggles to come to terms with the kinds of stories the mass market wants Black authors (and, we infer, Black writer-directors like Jefferson) to tell. These are not the highbrow modern riffs on the classics Monk and his agent (John Ortiz) reliably fail to sell, but the crass misery porn being churned out, to great acclaim and greater riches, by a younger, camera-ready rival, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae). Monk, in short, is a shade precious; the market merely wants another Precious. With this established, American Fiction shifts sideways, into a notably more sincere key. Jefferson relocates everyone to a Boston shore, where Monk's mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) is slipping into dementia without the necessary funds to pay for round-the-clock care; he does this in order to get Monk to take the desperate measure of bashing out another, more saleable manuscript - headed "My Pafology", heavy on the street slang - and assuming the new and wholly false identity of fugitive voice-of-Black-America Stagg R. Leigh. This mix of exaggerated literary satire and downhome drama has apparently been a tough sell itself in certain quarters, yet I felt the actors smoothing over most of the joins. Take
 the look Tracee Ellis Ross, as Monk's sister Lisa, shoots our hero as she realises he's been caught moving his books to a more prominent position in the bookstore again: a character beat that also happens to be supremely funny. You can hear Lear applauding from the rec room of TV Valhalla.

Jefferson, it turns out, both knows the kind of story he wants to tell and, crucially, how best to tell it. Even as "My Pafology" becomes America's foremost literary talking point - doubly so upon being retitled just "Fuck" - the writer-director never forces the shifts of scene and tone; rather than ramping up the action, he sets it on a determinedly low simmer and to a mellow jazz score, allowing time for Monk to eat ice cream in the dunes with widowed neighbour Coraline (Erika Alexander). He has an ally in Wright, who can nudge the material back-and-forth between its constituent modes subtly and thoughtfully, yet with a gravity all his own. His Monk is recognisable as a comically frustrated creative, both as a writer and the actor this plot requires him to become, but also as a weary citizen, and a loving, helpless son. The underlying assertion is that if a film can be multiple (perhaps sometimes contradictory) things at once, there's no reason we can't also appreciate that Black lives are many lives simultaneously, and that each of them matter. As a thesis-movie, it is, granted, far more writerly and inside-baseball than the broadly universal The Holdovers, careful plotting steering everyone towards a (choice) punchline about the lip service paid to "listening to Black voices", and beyond to the least demonstrative of its own multiple endings. As cinema, American Fiction is so anti-"Pafology", so insistently adult-oriented and MOR, that it can't deliver the gutpunch of a Precious, dishonest as that film might have been, nor the irrepressible bellylaughs of a full-on satire like Spike Lee's Bamboozled. (There are echoes of BlacKkKlansman in the subterfuge of this plot, but Jefferson isn't yet in a position to cut loose as Lee now routinely does.) The consolation prize, and it's an acceptable one, is a constant stream of chuckles and titters, and an understanding that, for once, an American fiction is pandering to what remains of our intelligence. Jefferson's playing a slow and steady game here, and his stealth pays off as often as not: for one, his supporting characters emerge as far better rounded and nuanced than the role for which Da'Vine Joy Randolph is surely about to win the Oscar.

American Fiction is now playing in selected cinemas.

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