Wednesday, January 24, 2024

American Fiction

And Everything Looks Worse in Black and White
"The Dumber I Behave, The Richer I Get!"
"It's Why My Parents Moved Here from Puerto Rico!"
One of the films selected for the National Film Registry last year was Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled, which had its African-American television writer protagonist—after being told his material wasn't "black" enough—write a television pilot that is so racist (entitled "Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show"), that he is taken aback when the show is accepted by his network and, when aired, becomes a big hit. Taking a script-page from Paddy Chayevsky's Network, where a middle-aged newscaster has a breakdown on television only to see the ratings go up and his network play up his insanity, Bamboozled takes a look at how extreme stereotypes in the form of entertainment—whether it's "Amos n' Andy" or gangsta videos or just satirical in its intent—can be equal in their power to reinforce prejudices, and even if the people getting paid to make the stuff are of that same minority. It says simultaneously that mass-entertainment appeals to the lowest common denominator, and that a conscienceless pursuit of money and prestige is a form of back-stabbing. It seems pretty obvious—did the popular "All in the Family" promote racism? Why are African-American television shows mostly comedies? Just because a minority is "represented" on a television show, does it have pander? The old "Candid Camera" had a line in its theme song that said "It's fun to laugh at ourselves." It never mentions that most people would rather laugh at others.
Or, "The Other." So, here we have American Fiction (based on the 2001 novel "Erasure" by Percival Everett) that does basically the same thing with a similar plot, but instead of being a blistering satire on the subject pushing the bounds of credulity, it feels all too real. Instead of a rant, it's a melancholic, ironic meditation. Sure, it's still satire, but instead of outrage, it produces an chagrined "Yeah, probably..."
Which is fine, especially when you have 
Jeffrey Wright doing the chagrinning. He plays Thelonious Ellison (call him "Monk"—everybody else does), a literature professor and author, whose books are still in print but also still on most store shelves. He writes great stuff, just not stuff that sells. After a classroom incident involving a particular Flannery O'Connor title ("With all due respect...'Brittany'...I got over it. You should be able to."), it's suggested that he take a breather for awhile and let things settle down. Fortuitously, his agent—who's a little lukewarm to his new book being a modern take on Aeschylus—suggests he go to a Book Festival in Boston for a panel discussion. "I hate Boston. My family's there," grouses Monk. But, he goes. The panel is less than rewarding. And considerably less than standing room only.
But, another panel is packed. Curious, Monk walks in to a discussion by author Sintara Golden (
Issa Rae), author of the new best-seller "We's Lives in Da Ghetto" and is a bit dumbfounded when a reading from the book is all ebonics and 'hood-slang, greeted adoringly by the mostly-white audience for "giving voice to the African-American experience." He gets the same expression on his face that I get when I see good directors aspiring to make B-movie grinders.
Then, it's off to visit his family. He's picked up by his Sister Lisa (
Tracee Ellis Ross), who works at a reproductive clinic and it's not as bad as all that. She admonishes him for not keeping in touch ("Everybody's busy. You drift away.") and they spend in the family home, still occupied by her and their mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), who is fading away to Alzheimer's—she has her "good" days and her "she's not there" days—and Lisa's the one doing the caretaking...because "the boys"—Monk and his L.A. based plastic surgeon brother Clifford (Sterling K. Brown)—aren't there and "let it happen." Monk promises to be more in touch, and the circumstances dictate that it happens.
But, Mom needs more care and that's expensive. So, one night Monk, in an alcoholic funk, sits down and starts to write. He calls it "My Pafology" under the nom de plume "Stagg R. Leigh" and—as Mario Puzo said about "The Godfather"—he "writes below his gifts" churning out a story about drugs and errant fathers and violence, always in the back of his mind thinking that he's writing a screed-parody and nobody'd touch it.
Wrong. He gets an advance of $750,000. His agent (
John Ortiz) is ecstatic—it's a hot property and Hollywood is already circling around to buy the rights. Really? It was supposed to be a joke, a parody, a protest...but this gets bought?...and bought big? But, the publishers want to know who "Stagg R. Leigh" is, and Monk and his agent have to come up with a story of why the author doesn't want to meet them. They come up with the idea that "Leigh" is a fugitive from justice—the idea of which makes the book so much "authentic", so much more "real" (when it's anything but!).
American Fiction is lovely. Funny, bitter, with a protagonist who's a bit of a jerk (and never really loses that quality), but learns that he is that way and can get better. In that way, he's a bit like his reading audience—yeah, it's really too bad about slavery and "the black experience" and all, but, maybe, I can be better by "embracing" the African-American voice (or as another character says "white people think they want the truth, but they just want to be absolved."). That is, if we want to set it down in monolithic black and white.
This is Cord Jefferson's first feature as writer and director (he's previously worked on HBO's "Watchmen" and "Station Eleven" series) and the writing is sharp, clever and well-considered. It's also, in places, damned funny and he knows how to make an ironic point without painting it in neon. That he's cast it so faultlessly probably made the job easier. Wright, as he always is, is the best—without being a poser about it—and it's nice to see him finally carrying the weight of a movie, instead of merely buttressing it. Plus, 
Leslie Uggams—who everybody knows is a very fine actress—finally gets another part to shine in, and Sterling K. Brown manages to make Monk's prodigal brother a best worst sibling in the world.
Very impressive for a first feature. And it's way-past time that Wright was top-lined in a project. know progress, even when it's such a sure thing, always seems to take too long. But, this is a good project for him, fitting right in with his ability to make you feel like you could meet this guy on the street. It's light satire, nerf parody, that doesn't make you feel so bad even if you're in on the joke...and maybe part of it. Maybe it is fun to laugh at yourself.

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