Jeffrey Wright in “American Fiction” 2023. IMDb photo

Cord Jefferson is an American writer with clearly promising gifts. He is the guy who sat in the writer’s room with the other struggling writers on the late night Larry Wilmore show that closed down in 2016 after two seasons.

But Cord didn’t close down. He opened wide.

After a series of shows and awards, Jefferson arrived as a writer/director with his “American Fiction.” He won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (he adapted his own novel), and the film was nominated in four other categories.

And here it is, a film about a brilliant, Black, disgruntled and cynical American writer brought to the screen with a cast of sparkling Black actors and one great Latin American actor, the fine John Ortiz, as Arthur, a beleaguered literary agent.

Jefferson’s story is about one American writer, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, played flawlessly here by a great American actor, Jeffery Wright.
“Monk,” a “highfalutin” writer of Black America’s social woes, is having a long, deep crisis of confidence.

Monk begins his slide into this deep funk at a bookstore when he sees a pile of his books catalogued with African American studies.


Mid-story, Monk sets about making a dramatic point by writing a book that has “a deadbeat dad, rappers, crack, and someone who gets killed by cops in the end. That’s Black, right!”

Things begin to percolate when a white woman publisher offers $750,000 and says it has the “proletariat vernacular” of Irvine Welsh.

Swamped by hospital bills for his ailing mother (a touching Leslie Uggams), Monk takes the offer and bills himself as “Stagg R. Leigh.”

He and Arthur make up a back story with that name, in which Leigh is a hardened felon and fugitive.

That hoax is the heart of the story, but it’s clear what Jefferson is pushing at us is a touching story about a family.

Jefferson gives them the trappings of an upper middle-class group of doctors who live in a nice beach house and speak in East Coast college tones.
Monk’s doctor brother (Sterling K. Brown) goes off the rails under the social pressures and becomes a raving gay pot-smoking dropout with two lovers.


When Monk quotes him the cost of the better nursing homes for their mother, he angrily asks, “Why are you looking at the best ones? She wasn’t the best mother.”

There is a calming breeze in neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander), who says she is a fan of Monk’s novels. Coraline seems to offer a softer path for Monk to walk.

The ending of this film-from-a-novel echoes to this writer Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 Broadway play “A Raisin in the Sun.”

“American Fiction” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video and MGM+.


J.P. Devine of Waterville is a former stage and screen actor.

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