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American Fiction(s)

American Fiction(s)

The year’s most literary Oscar contender is unafraid to take aim at white liberal guilt.

Elvis Mitchell, the dreadlocked bon vivant of film criticism, was speaking to a conference audience in Washington, D.C. about prestige TV. For years, Mitchell’s outsized personality often concealed that, though he’s forged a writing style equally bombastic and erudite, he served the additional function of diversifying the legacy newsrooms that perpetually scrambled to secure his bylines. However, Mitchell has always held craft above dogma, one of the reasons he’s become a pioneering force in African-American film history both in the academy and Hollywood.

Though Mad Men had aired its season finale two months before, he didn’t have much to say about that landmark show. Instead, he wanted to talk about Power–Starz’s crime epic produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. According to Mitchell, the show dominated cable viewership, a feat it and its spinoffs continue to achieve on a regular basis. It was also wildly popular with African-American viewers.

Despite its status as a ratings powerhouse and many favorable reviews, Power never garnered similar hype with the critical class as other Peak TV titles–a sign of what Mitchell considered a larger problem in Hollywood and the outlets that cover it. To achieve any fruitful form of diversity, Mitchell argued, Hollywood had to go beyond its own insularity and attempt to understand why some movies and series connect with underserved demographics. Such would mean executives and critics treating Power as more than profitable “urban” content and actually parsing out how, against all odds, it tapped into a zeitgeist not on the radar of those who insist they matter. 

I’m not in the habit of remembering academic keynotes so vividly, but Mitchell’s comments came to mind as Issa Rae–creator and star of HBO’s Insecure–went on a media blitz last week excoriating Hollywood for canceling diverse programming, including her most recent efforts. “There is a bitterness of just like, who suffers from you guys pulling back?” Rae said in a Time profile. “People of color always do.”

Less than a decade into a Hollywood career that recently culminated with an eight-figure Warner Media development deal, Rae doesn’t think too highly of the studio brass who took a chance on her. “I’m sorry, but there aren’t a lot of smart executives anymore. And a lot of them have aged out and are holding on to their positions and refusing to let young blood get in.”

While Rae clearly intended to throw some ageist shade at the suits in charge, she also makes a valid point. Insecure centers on the semi-autobiographical experiences of an “Awkward Black Girl,” but it has much more in common with Mad Men than Power. Throughout its five-season run, its most popular episodes drew around 500,000 viewers even with an avalanche of critical attention and backing by the most rarefied premium cable network in TV history, one that still caters to the wealthiest, most educated, and whitest demographics. 

Though its cancellation led to Rae’s diatribe, her follow-up HBO series, Rap Sh!t, fared much worse, struggling to reach Insecure’s admittedly modest numbers. This at a time when CBS’s Queen Latifah-led reboot of The Equalizer has sustained an average of 7 million weekly viewers and remains both the most-watched show for African Americans as well as a multi-demographic hit.  

Five years ago, Hollywood desperately tried to make Rae a breakout star of the Latifah kind. But, a string of commercial duds like Little, The Photograph, and The Lovebirds has led her to settle into a role as a hip supporting player. Rae’s coronation came during the halcyon days for African-Americans at the multipleplex—a decade in which Kevin Hart took the blockbuster comedy crown and films like Creed, Black Panther, and Denzel Washington’s The Equalizer earned a slew of critical and and commercial plaudits. 

These days, studios mostly trot Rae out for glorified cameos as President Barbie or the voice of the animated Spider-Woman so those in the know can nod in recognition. By any metric, she’s proven quite unbankable for a creator with a $10+million price tag. Although, in the end, this doesn’t really matter because Rae is in the club. Like Selma and Origin director Ava DuVernay, she continues to command the attention of industry players without one hit to her name. Her African-American Studies degree from Stanford and networking prowess position her as the newest iteration of the Obama model that our betters made from scratch, the ones Chris Hayes interrogates in Twilight of the Elites

While Rae has maintained her cultural cachet as an authentic “Black Voice” among the jet set and its aspirants, she’s also a symptom of what Mitchell warned those in the audience about eight years ago. In our current moment, market forces have exposed that there is a distinct difference between “Black Voices” and the voices of African-Americans. The former has devolved into little more than a self-serving career path for a particular class of celebrity that never intended to appeal to the community it claimed to speak for as it demanded fealty from the industry and mass audiences. In Rae’s view, canceling a series from any minority showrunner is tantamount to oppression—the data be damned—even if the audience such voices purport to represent demonstrates little interest in hearing what they have to say. 

Tellingly, Rae most recently appeared in Cord Jefferson’s debut film, American Fiction, as Sintara Golden, the author of a race porn bestseller entitled We’s Lives in the Tha Ghetto. It’s a role that seems a natural extension of her carefully cultivated image—except that, in the movie, this fictionalized version of Rae has successfully captured the popular imagination in addition to the attention of the self-proclaimed tastemakers. For the film’s protagonist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), Golden serves as his foil, a black writer who exploits her identity and embraces the worst caricatures of her culture to achieve a lucrative national presence. 

By contrast, Monk is a brilliant yet struggling college professor with years between his last hit novel and his fading command of campus. He’s the target of derision from his untalented colleagues, the authors of mystery paperbacks ready-made for airport racks who have weaseled their way into the lower echelons of academic bureaucracy. His name may allude to a jazz legend and titan of African-American literature, one of the many nods Jefferson makes to Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure that serves as the film’s source text. However, Monk slowly realizes he’s fallen far short of those predecessors as he contends with his flailing career, the burden of medical care for his dementia-stricken mother (Leslie Uggams), and the antics of his hot mess of a plastic surgeon brother (a never better Sterling K. Brown).

Taking a page from Golden, Monk channels his fury over pigeonholed blackness into writing the fake memoir My Pafology as Stagg R. Leigh (Get it?). It’s a ghetto tale ostensibly by a convict on the run. Of course, the book leads to the whirlwind success that has always eluded Monk and requires him to craft this stereotype-riddled alter ego. 

Much of what makes American Fiction resonate to the tune of five Oscar nominations is Jefferson’s deft balance of dimensional character study and brutal satire that directly engages the Mitchell/Rae dichotomy. Thanks to its literary pedigree, the film has the license to seriously interrogate the inner lives of the black middle-class, a subject that is typically relegated to B-grade “urban” thrillers like The Intruder and When the Bough Breaks or Hart’s Atlanta set comedies Ride Along and Night School—movies with a lot to say that exist in an unfortunate critical blind spot due to their populist pedigree. 

As Monk tells his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross), they hail from a family of doctors spearheaded by the now-deceased patriarch, a neglectful OB-GYN who held his expertise in higher esteem than his offspring. Consequently, the film probes small-town New England's privilege and its interaction with a cultural elite that only values minorities when it can use them to feign authenticity or serve as multicultural symbols ripe for soundbytes.

The result is an uneasy but effective picaresque of Monk’s descent into an industry that has no real forum for him to speak the truth. And such makes for some of the most biting moments of any film in recent memory. Monk offends a green-haired white student in his literature class with an etymological discussion of  the “n-word” and deadpans, “I think if I can get over it, you can.” A publishing exec (Miriam Shore) gushes over My Pafology’s authenticity in an office inundated with oversized RBG portraits. The hyper-feminist award committee chair (Jenn Harris) proclaims, “It’s important we elevate black voices,” after selecting My Pafology for a national literary prize over the protestations of Monk and Golden. In the words of Monk’s agent (John Ortiz) as the two eviscerate cinematic slave epics and poverty porn, “White people think they want the truth, but they don't. They want to feel absolved.” 

Yet, in a film so critical of attempts at absolution, American Fiction still feebly extends it to those like Golden who harbor contempt for both white intellectuals and general African-American audiences while they relish their spokesperson status. As the film posits, Monk’s fatal flaw is his insistence on being above race–his desire to write literary fiction instead of being bound to the Black Studies section at the local Barnes & Noble.

It’s a pathology the film implies is in need of a cure, but a condition it diagnoses by relying a bit too heavily on scapegoating white liberal altruism. Regardless of the film’s muddy politics, Monk feels a responsibility to grapple with his minority upper-middle classness in ways that show his true artistry–a nuanced worldview also responsible for keeping Everett largely confined to academic circles most of his career instead of Oprah’s and Reese’s bookclubs. It’s likely why the ever-astute Mitchell foregrounds Everett’s work in his recent interview with Jefferson to the point that it seems he almost prefers it to the adaptation. 

As Everett knows all too well, real art challenges. It hinges on righteous individualism whether it means to or not. Such is a point that Jefferson values, but that he can do little more than stumble toward as he makes his mark on an industry that remains in thrall to Rae and her imitators to maintain some semblance of social capital. American Fiction may finally be the catalyst that gives a great writer his due, but it ultimately seems content to laugh along with those stupid executives who greenlit it and who will be taken to task in legacy media the next time if they don’t finance its follow-up. 

American Fiction is now playing in theaters and available for premium digital rental.