American Fiction

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


It’s the time for Oscar Best Picture nominees at the Tropic, with three on screen this week. I reviewed “Poor Things” and “Zone of Interest” earlier, and now add “American Fiction.”

Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett and directed by Cord Jefferson, “American Fiction” is a glib indictment of racial stereotypes in the literary realm. Snappy and accessible with edges of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, the film delivers generous portions of comedy and drama.

Thelonious (Jeffrey Wright) is a respected author who is blocked and down on his luck. He is overwhelmed by literary genres based on his race. Thelonious has an esteemed history of writing highbrow novels that are sophisticated, but don’t sell. His publishing house wants “ghetto” novels from him, druggy tales from the inner city, full of ebonics and slang. Thelonious is pressured and overwhelmed.

As a joking experiment, he writes My Pafology referring to himself as a hardcore criminal. Abruptly, as if overnight, the manuscript is a hit, and he manipulates the white-helmed publishing house to re-title the book Fuck.

Jeffrey Wright is excellent as an author who is fed up and knows how to get the upper hand as a statement of rebellion and to gain just desserts. Eerily, as he stops caring about the sincerity of his intent to be a respected writer, Thelonious becomes more famous. In this way, one can see echoes of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” A ridiculous lark, a concept in poor taste, or a stereotypical cliché becomes a pathway for overnight success.

Though the heart of the story is one of satire, there is plenty of drama. Tracy Ellis Ross co-stars as an overworked doctor faced with caring for a mother (Leslie Uggams) with Alzheimer’s. Sterling K Brown offers a solid and rounded role in playing Thelonious’s gay brother who is belittled and dismissed.

Elements of “Play It Again, Sam” are quoted when Thelonious begins to write and observes an inner-city scene of violence right before his word processor.

Issa Rae is the applauded author who is put on a pedestal for her sensational commercial work, riddled with generalizations and over-used conventions about the black experience.

This is an ensemble production rich in slicing commentary which echoes sociological comedy films from the 70s and 80s when cinema dared to be not as easily consumed, less safe, organic, and pointed.

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