‘American Fiction’: Jeffrey Wright’s Stunning Performance Leads One of the Best Casts of The Year

Writer-director Cord Jefferson is a major voice in his debut feature, and Wright is heartbreaking in his sadness and barely contained rage, playing a professor who adopts a thug persona to find publishing success.

 

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Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction. Claire Folger

There are two films running more or less concurrently in American Fiction, a singular directorial debut from Cord Jefferson, former journalist (including time as an editor at Gawker, RIP) and Emmy-winning television writer (for his work on HBO’s Watchmen).


AMERICAN FICTION ★★★(3/4 stars)
Directed by: Cord Jefferson
Written by: Cord Jefferson
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, John Ortiz, Sterling K. Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, Erika Alexander, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody
Running time: 117 mins.


One is bittersweet and reflective in nature and will be familiar to readers of Percival Everett’s 2001 source novel Erasure; it’s a nuanced drama that tells the story of a once prominent Black Boston family fractured by tragedy, illness, and debt. 

The other is a biting and cynical satire familiar to those who have come across the marketing for American Fiction, which won the coveted People’s Choice award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a black comedy about the way that publishing reduces the vastness of the Black experience into patois-laden “trauma porn” about drug dealing, deadbeat dads, and unwanted pregnancies to placate white ideas about what it means to be African American.

Not only do the two films barely meet, they also often feel in competition with each other, producing a final product that doesn’t know when to be tender and when to be incredulous. 

Fortunately, these two threads share a key asset that brings Jefferson’s bifurcated treatise together in a manner both thoughtful and ultimately moving. They both feature a stunning lead performance by Jeffrey Wright, whose equal parts comic and tragic portrayal of an emotionally stunted academic turned literary hoaxer fronts one of the best ensemble casts of the year.  

If there were any lingering doubts that Wright—who won a Tony 30 years ago for his heart crushing turn as the nurse Belize in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (and a Golden Globe for reprising the role a decade later in Mike Nichol’s HBO mini-series)—is one of this country’s most spectacularly gifted actors, his 2023 has crushed them. Self-righteously imperious in George C. Wolfe’s Rustin, hilariously officious in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, he is heartbreaking in his sadness and barely contained rage here. It is incredible how much he can convey with just an exasperated grunt.

Playing Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a West Coast professor whose students are more invested in avoiding offensive language than in reading the text and whose stuffy “race-neutral” novels don’t sell, Wright is as priceless and multifaceted as a pear cut gemstone. When Monk returns to his childhood home of Boston to attend a literary conference, he confronts both a widowed mother (a luminous Leslie Uggams) in the first throes of dementia, and an Oberlin-educated writer (a hilarious Issa Rae) whose best-selling novel, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, embodies everything he hates about contemporary literature.          

To exorcise his rage and potentially pay his mother’s medical bills, Monk adopts a thug-life alter ego named Stagg R. Leigh and writes My Pafology, a novel about a drug dealer and the alcoholic father he never knew. After his agent (the wonderful John Ortiz) invents a backstory for the fictional Leigh—following a stint in prison, he’s now on the run from the FBI—the novel sells for a stunning advance and becomes the literary sensation of the summer. (Monk’s publishing house rushes it out in time for Juneteenth.)  

As cutting as all of this may be, I found myself most engaged when we were inside the Ellison family’s crumbling and mildly haunted beach house. 

Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Uggams in American Fiction. Claire Folger

Like his father, both of Monk’s younger siblings are doctors: his brother Cliff (Sterling K Brown) is a Tucson-based plastic surgeon experiencing the first liberation of his gay self after a brutal divorce from his wife; his also recently divorced sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a local OB-GYN forced by geography to become their mother’s caretaker. While both actors are terrific, Ellis’s screen time is severely curtailed, and Jefferson’s film would have benefitted if he had found a way to keep the actress, whose tremendous comedic gifts have been largely limited to television, in it a bit longer. 

Everyone in the Ellison orbit is richly drawn and deeply understood by the performers. Erika Alexander, also terrific this year in Savanah Leaf’s Earth Mama, brings bitting intelligence and humor to Coraline, the public defender who serves as Monk’s beachside neighbor and potential love interest. Broadway actor Myra Lucretia Taylor is transcendent as Lorraine, the Ellisons’ longtime housekeeper who finds fulfillment later in life. 

An avid reader, even of Monk’s novels, Coraline tells him that he writes women well; the same is true of Cord Jefferson. 

The last third of the film introduces a sleazy Hollywood producer (Adam Brody) and leaves behind most of the delicate shading to become a metafiction send-up of Hollywood in the manner of Robert Atman’s The Player. While it is done well enough, the more complicated family story it eschews feels rarer and more valuable.  

Still, the film heralds the beginning of a major cinematic voice in writer-director Jefferson. In doing so, it reaffirms something most of us were already aware of: Jeffrey Wright (not to sleep on Brown, Ross, Uggams, etc.) is as gifted a screen actor as there is living today. 


Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

 

‘American Fiction’: Jeffrey Wright’s Stunning Performance Leads One of the Best Casts of The Year