Harlan Jacobson reviews American Fiction and Rustin

December 21, 2023
By Harlan Jacobson

American Fiction started under the radar at this year’s Toronto Film Festival but emerged as the festival’s People’s Choice award winner.

Jeffrey Wright plays Thelonious “Monk” Ellison – how’s that for a mashup of references, from the offbeat jazzman to the Invisible Man author? -- who gets furloughed from his university Modern American Lit teaching job in LA for hitting the third rail of culture cancellation by teaching Flannery O’Connor’s fabled 1955 short story, “The Artificial …” and here’s where you insert the “N-Word.” A white girl with a neon blue dye job in the front row says the N-Word in the story’s title makes her uncomfortable. The 1950’s Atlanta-set story is about the point Ellison never gets to teach: in white America blacks have been reduced to slave-and-watermelon white lawn ornaments. Wright's character Ellison takes an even more direct route in challenging the kid than Cate Blanchett in her Julliard classroom rant about cultural erasure in Tár. “Well, I’m Black, and I got over it.” Ellison says. “I’m pretty sure you can.” She can’t. She lodges a complaint with the Dean. Next thing he knows, the newly ex-professor Ellison is back in his childhood bed outside Boston grappling with long dormant family issues and what to do about his failed career as a serious novelist.

Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett and directed by Cord Jefferson, making his feature film debut, the film fearlessly jumps into hand-to-hand combat between authenticity and for-sale identity politics. And it keeps its sense of humor. Ellison is appalled attending a book reading of the runaway best-seller, We Lives in Da Ghetto, by Sintara Golden, played by Issa Rae as a Black woman author behind plate-glass eyewear who maybe 20 years younger and grasps writing for the white marketplace way better than he. (Maybe it’s worth noting that her first name is also an anagram for Ol’ Blue Eyes). She’s written her best-seller in Stepin Fetchit Blacklish, which echoes, by the way, with the ridiculous New York Jewish stereotype dialect in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and it’s a monster hit. When Monk drops in on Sintara at a sold-out author's reading, cue the closeup on him wincing in racial embarrassment.

Wright’s presence in a film always signifies serious territory, but in American Fiction he seduces us with his great power as a black humor comedian, with increasingly dire expression about the stupidity of the white culture market that beats authenticity to death.

Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut, American Fiction, is a sharp comedy about racial commodification anchored by a terrific Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison.

Much of the shading around Monk Ellison’s character is contemporary family conflicts, replaying the rivalry with his accomplished siblings, a sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) who’s an ob-gyn and gives more than she gets, a reprobate gay brother dermatologist (Sterling K. Brown) whose preferences run skin deep, an Alzheimer-plagued mother (Leslie Uggams, now 80!) who’s forgotten the complicated family dynamics she created, and a potential soul mate across the street, a divorced lawyer (Erika Alexander), more of an idea about than a character who knows where the boundaries are, usually just after they are crossed. This is the state of the Black middle-class today that American Fiction stakes out, answering the question what fresh hell is this? And yet the film reflects something worth remarking. The Ellison family is torn apart by all the usual stuff, but it is warm, close and loving – you want to belong to this family, the way Americans in the 50’s first looked at fictional Jews and decided whatever they were doing looked better than whatever White Anglo Saxon Protestants were doing in power.

American Fiction builds in plain sight on something that has been true in American life since at least August Wilson took us inside the Hill District in his Pittsburgh plays. Like the image of Jews in mid-century, the depiction of black life in America doesn’t just mirror the complexity of modern social contradictions. It reflects a longing for connection and family that has atomized and disappeared in the larger society. It isn’t just that it is cool to be Black any more or less than it was suddenly cool to be Jewish in the post-WWII years; it’s that being Black means family you want to belong to, that, whatever the struggle, looks preferable to the soulless alternative. Thelonious Monk Ellison sits at the center of an appealing mix of imperfect choices for a character on a quest for authenticity. Wright plays Ellison with an escalating disbelief in the irony of having trained to compete professionally at the highest level but having to throw it all overboard in exasperation to embrace the ersatz, at the same time that he grapples with unfinished business at home.

Enraged by the appetite for bogus black, Ellison dashes off a rogue novel, My Pafology, purposely misspelled with an F, which he thinks is so evident a parody of the modern state of the black novel that out of embarrassment he creates a fictitious identity – Stagg R. Lee, as Jefferson ransacks culture for fun references -- of an anonymous author, an escaped convict no less, to distance himself from the disgrace of shameless pandering. Wrong bet. Arthur, his agent played wonderfully by John Ortiz, loves it. The Midtown white publishers, who can’t wait to be honorary black revolutionaries, are wild to make the fugitive author the publishing sensation of the year, as if Ellison’s convict somehow stumbled out of the famous party Leonard and Felicia Bernstein threw for the Black Panthers at the Dakota in 1970. It’s rueful fun watching Monk and Arthur play out their con over the phone with the white publishers. Exasperated, wanting a way out of this farce, Ellison pushes the Ivy Leaguers even further by insisting on a title change to our culture’s number one four-letter word. The film waits a beat… What do you think they say? The editors love it. The F-word it is. Front and center in airport bookstores everywhere.

Complications ensue, of course. Ellison ends up on a five-person National Book Award-style jury with Sintara Golden and three white authors, to judge the book of the year. That’s when Jefferson’s script turns the camera around and looks out at the audience, like the mythical bird that flies in ever smaller concentric circles till it disappears up its own farce. American Fiction is funny, withering, and sticks the landing perfectly.

Winning the non-competitive Toronto festival’s sole prize—the Audience Award, which is so very Canadian democratic with a small d – American Fiction joins the likes of The Fablemans, Belfast, Nomadland, 12 Years A Slave, and Green Book, all Toronto films that went to the Oscars.

Finally, Jeffrey Wright also has a supporting role as Adam Clayton Powell in Rustin, George C. Wolfe’s star-studded retelling of Bayard Rustin and the masterminding of the 1963 March on Washington, a watershed moment where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. The film is the backstory of the main players as they weigh the politics of pressure and makes of Rustin a man too complex for the times he was ahead of: a gay man, an invisible operative and theorist who could conceive, organize, and will into being the March but, like the out front Moses, was sacrificed on the way to the promised land. Colman Domingo’s Rustin is ironic, visionary and tragic all in the same frame. Good support from Glynn Turman as A. Philip Randolph, Chris Rock as Roy Wilkins, and Ami Ameen as Martin Luther King, among others, but it feels like Domingo’s year.

Seeing them together, Rustin now on Netflix and American Fiction soon on Amazon, is a bittersweet treat: it’s a chance to see two actors, who each deserve the Oscar for best actor in a star-studded year, get stuck on this truth: The more things change – and from the 1960s to the 2020’s, they do – the more they stay the same.