"Essence Magazine made me do it!"
On December 25th, 2023, as we waited for The Color Purple (2024) to begin in the theater, I distinctly remember seeing the trailer for the film American Fiction. My immediate thoughts were "not another one" and "that looks lame."I swore that I would avoid going to and supporting another modern day blaxploitation film by any means. However, after seeing the Essence magazine cover for the January and February issue, and reading about the movie from Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Erika Alexander's perspective, I was sold!
I never once considered just how important the cast was. Three generations of black woman in film from three different culturally impactful sitcoms, centering around black life and womanhood authentically. Tracee Ellis Ross was Joan Clayton, the quirky lawyer and glue within her group of girlfriends in the hit series Girlfriends. Erika Alexander, also played a powerful attorney with the hit slogan "Maxine Shaw, attorney at law." Lastly, Issa Rae, the creator and protagonist within the HBO hit series Insecure. Truthfully, I have only seen a few episodes, but I often listen intently when people engage in the "who's the real villain" debate in reference to Molly and Issa, similar to the one fostered surrounding Joan Clayton and Toni Childs. In identifying the diverse nature and talents amongst the three, I was curious to see how they showed up within the film for myself. I searched up "American Fiction showtimes near me", and purchased my ticket immediately after finishing the article.
The cast of American Fiction (2023) consists of Tracee Ellis Ross who plays Lisa, the sister of Thelonious 'Monk' Ellison played by Jeffery Wright. Erika Alexander plays the character Coraline, the love interest. Leslie Uggams plays Agnes Ellison, the mother to Lisa, Monk, and Clifford Ellison, played by Sterling K. Brown. For the life of me I could not pinpoint where I knew Leslie Uggams from. I searched Google and to no avail the connection did not click, until it did. Next, the family domestic Lorraine is played by Myra Lucretia Taylor. Lastly, Sintara Golden is the author of the book We's lives in the Ghetto within the film, played by Issa Rae. Can I be honest? The title of the book made me laugh out loud in the theater and her excerpt read aloud almost took me out.
Let's jump right in, shall we?
We need to change the way that we address weight gain within the black community. Trigger warning: weight talk and body shaming within the beginning of the movie. Monk immediately addresses his weight gain when catching up with his sister Lisa and their childhood domestic worker Lorraine. Following, once Monk's mom, Leslie arrives, she immediately begins to cosign his harmful speech and even contributes to the depreciation. This same sentiment applies to the conversations surrounding their father, the mystery man. As a viewer, we only receive secondhand accounts of the father through the conversations of Monk and his siblings. My quarrel is the placation of the father's death, especially in the manner of which he passed. Monk's father is depicted as the "cooky genius, that (redacted)" and the manner of which his death is discussed is harmful. Did his life not matter? I would also like to add the trigger warning: mentions of death by suicide in a lethal manner within the film. The siblings speak about the father and his death in a laissez-faire manner, although he died brutally and within the home where most of the movie takes place.
I am unclear as to whether my dislikes stem from a critique on the culture surrounding the topics or the way in which they were displayed within the movie. However, the movie was an imitation of life, therefore I am leaning more towards the side of society.
Now that we got that out of the way, let's get to the good stuff!
As a stated on Tik Tok , "this movie is a big F-U to Boston" and initially when Monk makes the comment about not wanting to write a book about a woman from Dorchester with five kids, I was gagged and moderately offended, as a Boston narrative with roots in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. Yet, I stuck with the story. As the film progresses, the F-U is clearly towards the racist culture of Boston and the black Bostonians caught a stray in the crossfire. Arthur, played by John Ortiz, is Monk's publicist and the birth of the false persona and inseption of the spread of My Pafology begins in South Boston. Southie has a dark history of being a racist if not the most racist neighborhood in Boston. Even today there is an eerie feeling, while walking through the neighborhood as a black person.
My Pafology was a joke that went too far. Similar to Monk, many people begin with the intention to spread light onto a particular discrepancy, but get lost in the sauce.
Black Face On Black Bodies
The scene between Monk and Sintara Golden during the lunch break was well written and memorable. Monk is on the left side of the table and Sintara is on the right. The viewers are in on the verbal irony established by Monk in his critiques of Sintara. Sintara panders inconspicuously and benefits from the exploitation of black people, under the guise that she is amplifying black voices. While, Monk is also pandering and exploiting black people, but under a pseudonym. The viewers watch as Monk and Sintara engage in a verbal tennis match and between the two, Sintara is holding the book White Negros: When Cornrows Were in Vogue and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation. I wanted to find an image of the book cover to read and to my surprise I stumbled upon the Vanity Fair article titled 'Who Wins American Fiction’s Big Literary Showdown? Even Cord Jefferson Doesn’t Know' by Hillary Busis. I laughed when I realized that they used a still from the movie, but blurred out the title of the book!
Claire Folger/ Image from Vanity Fair
Both Monk and Sintara serve as a mirror for the other, however one is upfront, while the other is in denial. Monk and Sintara have experienced challenges but never hardship and both have lived rather privileged lives. They are distributing trauma and poverty porn to serve as a guilty pleasure for blacks but also to appease white guilt as well. Monk was attracted to and interested in Caroline when he discovered that she read books published by Thelonious, but shamed and berated her after finding a copy of F*ck in her bag.
In all the excitement I almost forgot to circle back to Leslie Uggams, the mother within the film. Leslie Uggams was Kizzy in the original Roots 1977. The most famous series ever created, but one about the perils and traumas of Slavery. This movie is layered and the intentionality is appreciated.
"Satire is God's gift to earth!"
As to not spoil your watch experience i'll keep this next point brief. American Fiction is a story about black life and its complex but beautiful nature. Caretaking, substance use, sexuality, death, love, and loss are all pivotal elements of the film. American Fiction amplifies the dangers of what Chimanda Ngozi Adichi refers to as a single narrative within her infamous TedxTalk The Dangers of A Single Narrative.
I left the theater feeling validated. Prior to, I always failed to quite articulate my observations surrounding the relationship between stereotypes, white guilt, and the perpetuation and amplification of harmful single narratives within society. However, American Fiction is the proof I needed. A few days after the movie I received an email inviting me to a "community book discussion" encouraging graduate students to engage with a text about "an incarcerated teen [who] writes letters to his childhood friend about his experience within the American justice system. This is a story of how poverty, lack of adult guidance, and systemic oppression can affect, young, vulnerable people." The kid's name is Justyce and the author grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta and graduated from Spelman College. *Stares into the camera*
If I could compare this movie to a song, I would employ James Browns' 'The Big Payback' to get the job done!
"Satire is God's gift to earth" and this is the must see movie of 2024!