FILM REVIEW — Jeffrey Wright shines quietly in “American Fiction”

Published 12:02 am Friday, January 12, 2024

“American Fiction”

MGM Films

Directed by Cord Jefferson

Starring Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Erika Alexander, Leslie Uggams, Issa Rae and Sterling K. Brown

Rated R

3 ½ Stars

I’ve always appreciated actor Jeffrey Wright for his thoughtful performances. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he seldom feels the need to chew the scenery in his acting roles.

He tends to play quiet, contemplative men — characters who are much deeper than just superficial bravado. That’s one of the main reasons why I find his work so resonant.

His latest such role comes in “American Fiction,” a film in which he plays Monk, a struggling novelist. Monk’s books haven’t been selling, and what’s particularly galling, the bookstore clerks keep shelving them in the African American Studies section of the store.

Monk is a Black man, but he doesn’t see his work as being particularly race-based.

Which is why he’s incensed when he meets another writer (Issa Rae), who has found success by amplifying Black stereotypes and stock characters within her own work. Monk finds this to be shameful, but he is also jealous of her literary triumphs. So much so that he writes his own Blaxploitation book, and when it becomes an overnight bestseller, he feels compelled to hide his identity and to even try and destroy the literary monster he created.

“American Fiction” is directed and written by Cord Jefferson, based on the 2001 novel “Erasure.” Much like Wright’s performance here, it’s a subtly nuanced story. On the surface, we get a social satire about one Black man’s reflections on how he is perceived in contemporary society. Dig deeper and you find the drama of him treading water, desperately trying to maintain his dignity while dealing with family issues and a flailing career.

I expect “American Fiction” to be nominated for the Best Screeplay Academy Award, just as much as I expect Wright to be nominated for his leading performance in the film.

I wouldn’t be shocked to find several of his cast mates also nominated, especially Sterling K. Brown playing his brother who is dealing with his own set of personal and professional struggles. These would be the first Oscar nominations for each of these men.

But while awards are nice, the power of a movie comes from the film itself and not from industry accolades.

“American Fiction” stands on its own, as an amusing satire and a complex look into the life of its leading man.

Many of the issues raised in this film don’t affect me personally, being a White film critic, but I nevertheless couldn’t stop thinking about the film long after I’d left the theater. Indeed, this is one of a select few movies that I watched three times last year— “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer” and “Past Lives” are the other titles in the Three Timers club.

It therefore won’t come as a surprise to find that I believe that this is easily one of the best movies of the year. Credit the writing, direction and acting from the entire cast, but especially another quietly dignified performance by Jeffrey Wright.

Movie reviews by Sean McBride, “The Movie Guy,” are published each week by Orange Newsmedia. Sean welcomes your comments via email at sean@seanthemovieguy.com.