The most daring (and at the same time heartwarming) nominee at this year’s Oscars is the intellectual, politically incorrect drama American Fiction, which finally says out loud about African Americans what we all think but don’t say. If you’re tired of heartbreaking dramas about racism; about how hard it is for black people to live; how they are oppressed everywhere and killed by white cops for no reason…, then American Fiction will not only make you laugh, but will also sincerely share a fresh sip of the most cynical and least false truth.

Name American Fiction
Genre Comedy, drama
Director Cord Jefferson
Starring Jeffrey Wright, Tracy Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, John Ortiz, Erica Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Adam Brody, Keith David, Myra Lucretia Taylor
Studio MGM
Timing 1 hour 57 minutes
Year 2023
Website IMDb

The film’s protagonist is Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a doctor of literary studies, writer and teacher, whose friends and family call him Monk. The story begins with a scene at a lecture. The teacher (who is black) writes the title of the novel he is going to discuss on the board, and it includes the word “nigger.” “That’s not right!” an outraged student (white) stands up. “No, it’s spelled correctly, with two ‘g’s,” the teacher ironically retorts, and then tries to explain that South American literature is full of this word, and it is normal in a given context. However, the offended and angry girl runs out of the classroom, and Monk (who had once asked a German student about the presence of Nazis in his family tree) is sent on indefinite leave at his own expense.

Writing doesn’t work out either. Monk’s overly clever novels take a long time to write, are difficult to publish, and sell poorly. Almost all publishers refused his latest manuscript, realizing that it would be another commercial failure. In addition, publishers accuse him of being “non-black” or “not black enough” and of producing “black literature” that is currently in trend, while Monk not only denies the existence of “black literature” (and thus “black culture”), but also denies the concept of race in general, because, in his opinion, in the modern civilized world there is no white and black literature, no white and black culture, no black and white race, but instead there is good and bad literature, low and high culture, educated and ignorant people. 

Meanwhile, a novel by a young black writer, Cynthara Golden, is making a splash, writing about typical ghetto blacks who grow up in the slums, are raised on the streets, push drugs, die in shootings, rap, wear gold-plated chains and snapbacks, and “talk” mostly in interjections instead of full sentences like “hey, ah, what’s up, bro.” The media is all over the new book because it is “so brutal, so lively, so real.” And Monk is shocked, embarrassed, disappointed, and jealous. And one languid evening, under a pseudonym, he hastily writes a wild work of deliberately stereotypical imagination called My Pathology (with a deliberately gross misspelling of the word “pathology” because “blacks are illiterate”) about gangsters, showdowns, shooting which eventually becomes a blatant literary phenomenon, and Monk is so ashamed of that writing that he even changes the title of the book to the straightforward “Shit” and is forced to hide behind the fictional alter ego of a certain “author from the people” who is blacker than black, has served time for murder, and now, having written this “desperate, torn from the heart” memoir, cannot show his face to his fans because he is hiding from the FBI. 

I wonder what is actually pathological, that is, deviated from the norm? Is it the stubborn stereotype that the black race is just that, necessarily criminal, reputedly dark, or is it Monk himself, who does not fit (and does not want to fit) into the given cliché? By the way, when he gets a chance to talk to Cynthara Golden, he asks her: “Why did you write that black people are like that? After all, you yourself studied at a prestigious college, graduated from a first-class university, have a respectable status in society…” – “Because readers want to read this.” In other words, white readers want to read about black poverty in order to realize that their help to unfortunate blacks is extremely important and thus feel atonement for past sins; and black readers want to support this trend because without it, it is impossible to exploit the white guilt complex.

Jeffrey Wright masterfully plays the forced split of the hero into a skeptical professor who allows himself to ridicule even such a painful and untouchable American cliché as the death of an innocent black man at the hands of a white racist police officer, and a marginalized person who is supposed to be outside the system and an uncompromising voice for the disenfranchised community of color. Obviously, this is an ironic allusion to the classic literary doppelgänger of the Romantic era, which implied that the humble lyrical hero had a dark (in this case, figuratively and literally dark) double. And just as the Doppelgänger necessarily reflected the protagonist’s secret, hidden essence, the author of Shit somehow reflects Monk’s deeply disguised or forgotten rudimentary nature. 

“Along with an honest and at the same time satirical reflection on the notoriously black and white American history, American Fiction tells a touching family story in which an elderly professor buries his suddenly deceased sister, seeks common ground with his frivolous gay hedonist brother, and takes care of his old mother, whose Alzheimer’s disease is progressing. And we see how an old woman with a neurodegenerative disease suddenly expresses vile racism and homophobia (which she never did before, in her right mind): “Thank God your new girlfriend isn’t white,” “I always knew my son wasn’t a faggot.” “She doesn’t know what she’s saying,” Monk is embarrassed for his mother.

But it seems that the hero’s dementia-afflicted mother is not just a dramatic plot device, but an eloquent metaphor: in today’s civilized society, racism, homophobia, sexism… are not constant phenomena, but manifestations of dementia that deviates from the normal functioning of the mind. Accordingly, modern culture no longer needs to grudgingly cultivate black mentality, homophily, and feminism as methods of fighting against the mentally ill. We don’t fight Alzheimer’s patients, we just ignore their words.