By Sam Tucker
As we round into the new year, most of us film “enthusiasts” inevitably start building lists in anticipation of the upcoming Oscars. Most of the big tentpole movies have been vetted already, and for many the die has already been cast around the major categories. However, this writer has a (somewhat hipster tinted) opinion on the givers of the Golden Men and is always on the lookout for sleeper hits and latecomers. With that in mind, I was excited to head to the IPH this MLK Day to see the much-lauded American Fiction and equally excited for the following talkback with local authors Vanessa Miller, Michael Garcia and Fola Onifade about the film’s themes and impact. And let me say: Do not be like The Academy and sleep on this amazing critique of writing and culture.
American Fiction is the debut of writer/director Cord Jefferson, who was previously the executive story writer for the (excellent) HBO take on Watchmen — fitting as that show also tackled the modern cultural climate and race relations within it. The film follows Monk — an esoteric writer and professor who gets frustrated with the success of a new writer who writes (what he considers) baseline and stereotypical “Black” fiction. Needing some funds to deal with a new hiccup with his family, he drunkenly puts fingers to keyboard and writes what he considers trash … which inadvertently becomes the hit novel of the year for the publishing house that had previously scorned him. We then follow a somewhat meta plot of him coming to terms to what this success means while acting in a double life — playing the hardened criminal who “wrote” the book and the high-minded literary artisan who found it abhorrent.
I had read reviews from some of the film critics I follow on Letterboxd and frankly felt like they had watched a different movie. This may have been the funniest movie that came out in 2023 — smart writing and performances across the board. It also had a lot to say and unpack about the impact that Black writers have on culture at large, while delivering a somewhat familiar family drama in ways that didn’t feel like repeats or retreads of what we had already seen. Coupled with a fantastic third half to drive everything home, it presents its thesis and gives you plenty of time to consider without overstaying its welcome.
So now to the elephant in the room — the reaction to the themes of the movie from my specific perspective. I am a white male, similar in description to many of the characters this movie portrays as being predatory or oblivious to what is really going on with the manuscript they are going to profit heavily off of. For me, this movie was an experience very similar to Get Out — one that is intentionally challenging the status quo and whose meaning could be lost on audiences. My argument is that this movie should be not only seen but sought after — a piece of art that will challenge your views on the content you consume in the same way that Get Out challenges platitudes and broad viewpoints.
I think the best way to walk out of American Fiction is with the mindset that the talkback moderator advised (paraphrasing here): “Whether it’s content you are consuming or the people you are spending time with, it is always worth finding a way to expand your horizons and hear different voices.”
If you missed one, or both, of IPH’s American Fiction talkback sessions, you can watch them on IPH’s YouTube Channel or below!
So as always, head over to the IPH, turn your phone off and enjoy a nice beverage while you form your own thoughts on how impactful fiction can be!
Sam Tucker, a cinema enthusiast residing in Charlotte, fills his days playing rugby while discussing movies and a host of other nerdy pursuits. Follow what he’s watching on his Letterboxd here.