"...a very good, provocative film which would be ideal for seeing and discussing..."

Writes the Book on Stereotyping in Publishing

(021624) American Fiction is a meta-dramedy that effectively satirizes the attitudes towards race by book publishers and to a lesser degree Hollywood producers. It criticizes them for their stereotyping and pandering to white expectations concerning people of color. It recalls Robert Townsend's classic comedy Hollywood Shuffle and to a lesser extent Spike Lee’s Bamboozled-which was cruder. Both films explored similar themes of black stereotypes in media and writer/director Cord Jefferson admitted that Hollywood Shuffle was indeed an influence. But although this film has many moments of levity, it is more serious and thoughtful than its predecessor.

The film, which was only in selected theatres, recently opened wide after its multiple Oscar nominations. It was nominated in an impressive five categories including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. This is probably more categories than many critics or even the film makers expected. These multiple Oscar nominations means it beat out two other acclaimed films about race by African Americans. The other two were: The Color Purple and Origin, the latter of which be future reviewed on this site. The script is a very witty and enjoyable adaptation of the Percival Everett novel, Erasure. The Best Adapted Screenplay category is the only Oscar it could conceivably win because the competition is fiercer than usual in the other nominated categories this year.

Writer/director Cord Jefferson started out as a journalist, and he worked on many high quality TV productions (The Good Place, Succession and The Watchmen HBO show), and the writing which is frequently superb is the best aspect of the film. But Jefferson also shows his talent here as a film maker and along with Celine Strong (
Past Lives), Alice Diop (Saint Omer), and Nida Manzoor (Polite Society) he is one of the most promising new directors in Hollywood.

Everyone has their own tastes in film influenced by their experiences, but I don’t think American Fiction is quite on the same level as
Past Lives, Oppenheimer, Broken Flowers or The Boy and His Heron and it is often more clever than inspired or emotionally evocative. The problem is that once the basic concept is introduced which is admittedly ingenious there are a few dull patches before we get to what could be (after multiple false endings) the smartest most clever conclusion anyone could hope for.

The main character is a serious, snobby Humanities professor named Thelonious Monk Elisson, probably named in tribute to several great black icons. The first is jazz composer/musician, Thelonious Monk (his album with John Coltrane, Live at Carnegie Hall was one of my favorite recordings released in the last twenty years), and the second is Ralph Ellison, the writer of The Invisible Man (no relation to the H. G. Wells book). Monk is a serious, intellectual black writer who author's a smart, ambitious second book (the first was well reviewed but it sold poorly), It’s a new translation of Aeschylus’s The Persians, but no one wants to publish it. The publishers say “It is not black enough,” echoing the producer’s complaints in Hollywood Shuffle, and they probably think it is over the heads of most of its potential readers. But what is selling is books that are written in profanity laced black slang (what used to be called Ebonics) that only deal with the worst aspects of black culture which reinforces the most negative, reductive stereotypes about African American culture.

If that was not bad enough, at the worst moment the author is experiencing money problems. His mom, Agnes, suffers from dementia and needs to be put in a nursing home. His sister, Lisa (Ellis) Tracey Ross is sick of dealing with all the family problems and his dead beat brother who got caught by his wife in bed with a man claims he can’t contribute because he lost all his money in a messy divorce. At the same time Monk looks down upon a trashy female author who he considers to be one of the worst panderers to stereotypes: Sinatra Golden. He envies both her commercial success and widespread critical acclaim for a novel he considers offensive written all in urban slang titled: "We's Lives In Da Ghetto" even though she has always lived in a comfortable middle class neighborhood.

When his sister Lisa who was serving as his mom’s caretaker unexpectedly drops dead, Monk decides to take drastic measures to make quick cash. The author completely reinvents himself and writes a novel that uses profanity as the title told from the point of view of a criminal in ghetto slang. His new pen name "Stagg R, Leigh" is a variation of Stagger Lee-the name of a mythical thug who was killed by a jealous husband of a woman he flirted with. The story/urban legend has been memorialized in countless songs such as Mississippi John Hurt’s “Stack O Lee’s Blues, “The Clash’s “Wrong Em Boyo,” “Stackerlee by David Von Ronk, and multiple songs called Stagger Lee by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, The Grateful Dead, Wilson Pickett, and Lloyd Price.

Monk packs in as much offensive material as he can in his book, reinforcing the worst stereotypes about black men. He also fills it to the brim with clichés about urban suffering and black violence. He goes further and pretends to be a fugitive from the law, reasoning that negative notoriety has helped the outlaw street artist: Banksy. Indeed, this negative publicity makes his fame skyrocket and book sales soar. A clear parallel to Tupac’s album sales increase when he went to jail. "Stagger" becomes an instant superstar and to Monk's horror, plans are made to make a film adaptation. By this point American Fiction's basic plot has more than a few similarities to the story of Laura Albert a failed author who became massively successful writing a book from the point of view of J. T. Leroy a, domestic abuse survivor who didn’t exist; she even got her sister in law to pose in public meeting in the wig to play the character.

While all this was going on, he connects with Coraline, an available female neighbor. She lives next door to his parent’s beach house and they bump into each other after he helps her pick up some spilled groceries in the film’s big official cute-meet. She seems perfect in every way and is both smart and attractive. The way the ex-Cosby Show actress, Erika Alexander plays her, you can see how he could instantly fall for her. The big foreseeable problem they might have is that she sees him as emotionally remote, but her influence might make him express himself more.

Even people he respects, including his new girlfriend, unexpectedly love the book which he considers trash and was meant as a joke. It gets nominated for a big award while his previous serious book under his real name gathers dust on the shelves. He does not know whether he should come forward and tell anyone the truth. If he does, he risks losing his hard won fight for success and even worse his girlfriend, Coraline would know he’s a fraud. So, he gets a spark in his head and decides his next novel might be about a respectable author who fools everyone into thinking he is a thug.

The film seems to suggest that the media is filled (with some justification) with negative black images and characters in order to cater to Caucasian’s narrow stereotypical assumptions about African-Americans. But the only problem with that idea is that whites are not the only consumers who reward stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans. Gangster rap is popular among all races including African-Americans while the more benign, non-violent types of rap have frequently been ignored.

Everyone under 40 knows the songs of Tupac who called himself  “a thug immortal,” as well as the hyper violent works of 50 Cent and NWA. Far fewer know the excellent, socially conscious works of A Tribe Called quest or Boogie Down Productions. it’s very unlikely that De La Sol who as far as I know have clean criminal records will ever be on the Super Bowl, but former drug dealer turned Corporate rapper, Jay Z and former pimp Snoop Dogg. have both made the cut. It seems that many people of all races and social classes seem to prefer consuming violent media that glories stereotypes and criminal behavior. In a similar vein, Good Fella's has the predominately white uber-violent gangster film has deservedly earned the status of a classic. Conversely the also deserving film, A Bronze Tale is a wonderful tale about Italian Americans with a positive message (made by Robert De Niro) and is a corrective to negative films about Italians, The former has been culturally lionized while the latter is all but forgotten.

Still, American Fiction is a very good, provocative film which would be ideal for seeing and discussing with close socially conscious friends. It is also perhaps the best film directly about the written word since
the French Dispatch. It should inspire plenty of intelligent discussion about how we see other races and what kind of media we should support.

Directed & Written by:    Cord Jefferson, based on the novel Erasure by
 Percival Everett
Starring:    Jeffrey Wright, Traces Ellis Ross, John Ortiz
Released:    12/15/2023 (USA)
Length:    117 minutes
Rating:    R for language, some drug use, sexual references
Available On:    At press time playing in limited release at several
 Chicago area theatres and available for rental on
 Amazon Prime

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to and His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

Mister Carli is going to speak about how the Frankenstein Monster has evolved in the media at Moraine Valley Community College in his upcoming lecture: “The Complete Character is Nowhere: The Evolution of Frankenstein and His Monster in Films, Comics and Songs”
This event is scheduled on Wednesday, March 6th, noon-12:50pm, at Moraine Valley Library Lounge (Building L).

Mister Carli will also host the program: "Poetry and Film" at the Chicago Public Library's Back of the Yards Branch on Saturday, April 13th at 3:00pm.

Come to the New Poetry Show on the first Saturday of every month at Tangible Books in Bridgeport from 7-9 at 3324 South Halsted.
This is now a monthly show featuring Poetry/Spoken Word, some Music, Stand Up and Performance Art and hosted by Mister Carli. For more information e-mail: for details

Upcoming features at the Poetry Show:
March 2-Gregorio Gomez, Bob Lawrence, Daina Popp, and Donna Voyeur
April 6-Charles Haddad, Don Hargraves, and others to be announced.

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Review © 2024 Alternate Reality, Inc.



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