Austin Film Festival 2023: AMERICAN FICTION Depicts The Real Struggles of Finding One’s Impactful Voice

This fascinating and relevant entry from this year’s Austin Film Festival examines the struggles of Black artists who hope their work can impact their culture. Through the eyes and mind of one particular writer, the protagonist struggles to remain a viable and successful artist, expressing his experience while also feeling the weight of his own troubles and the doubts that come from representing his people. These themes all sound rather heavy, but writer/director Cord Jefferson delivers a film that provides lots of humor and takes a sharply realized examination of what it is like to be a Black artist in America.

Jeffrey Wright stars as author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a writer of novels whose only success has come from one singular offering. As he continues to maintain a successful career, he finds that his follow-up work has fallen upon deaf ears. Desperate to maintain some level of success in his profession, Monk perhaps decides to compromise his sensibilities and deliver work that reflects a more seedy and less honest representation of who he is.

On top of his career troubles, Monk must face his familial issues with a mother who is declining in her latter years and a brother whose problems with addiction seem to be escalating. In hopes of making money through his writing, Monk’s compromise proves to be more complicated than he initially anticipates.

For the most part, I was blown away by Jefferson’s deconstruction of the Black experience in art. I also very much enjoyed his razor-sharp satire of his deconstruction of Black artists’ challenges in America. I laughed often and marveled at Jefferson’s message, but I was also taken aback by the silliness that he uses to depict substance abuse addiction. And I don’t mean that in a positive way.

I feel that while Jefferson does a great job of depicting the ways that people try to capitalize on the problems of African Americans, I didn’t particularly appreciate how Monk’s brother’s addiction issues are often played for laughs. Initially, the behavior comes across as amusing, but eventually, it remains one-note and tone-deaf.

Otherwise, I like this movie because it offers much insight into what Black people in the arts go through to maintain their careers and achieve success. Jefferson was present at the AFF screening and expressed his frustration on how so many movie producers tried to pigeonhole him as an artist and offered him potentially lucrative film opportunities that compromised how he wanted to stand out from his contemporaries.

I must praise Jeffrey Wright, who delivers a phenomenal performance, as Monk, an author who wishes to elevate his work from the typical stereotypes that permeate Black art. Though I was not too fond of how the film depicts his character, Sterling K. Brown is still great as Monk’s brother Cliff, a member of the Ellis family with a severe substance abuse problem. I was also very much entertained by John Ortiz, who portrays Monk’s agent Arthur, who encourages his client to go against his more sensible leanings.

American Fiction is still a very good movie. Jefferson could have handled the Cliff character with more delicacy and realism. Nevertheless, this movie is one I highly recommend, as it reflects an experience that is far too often overlooked and is still important and relevant in our world.

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