A never-better Jeffrey Wright soars in spiky character study American Fiction

Playing an embittered literature professor, Jeffrey Wright makes American Fiction a troubling character study that rings true to boardrooms and classrooms everywhere. Luke Buckmaster marks it as the peak of the actor’s career.

It seems obvious, even at this potentially early outset, that Jeffrey Wright’s character in American Fiction—the haughty novelist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison—will go down as an all-timer in the actor’s oeuvre. I dare say that Wright, who received an Oscar nomination for the role, has never been better: he’s brilliant as this sharp, eviscerating character, blessed with a silver tongue and cursed with a foot stuck in his mouth.

There are times when you think “oh god, he just said that,” relishing the nervous energy captured by writer/director Cord Jefferson, adapting Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. The film is partly about the creative process, and especially about the context in which art is received—particularly in relation to Black literature.

After his new manuscript is rejected for not being “Black enough,” Monk rebels against the system by writing a mock novel that pokes fun at clichés expected from Black writers. His low view of the industry is vindicated when the book is snapped up by a publisher and becomes a best-seller, acclaimed even by hoity-toity types—for espousing “the language of the gutter.” Monk’s agent understands the novel won’t sell if the public knows who wrote it, which alone raises interesting questions around the relationship between art and perceptions of its creator.

Monk amusingly attempts to derail his own book by retitling it as “Fuck,” only to find the publishers loving it even more. This is part of the film’s sideways look at popular culture and the mores of the times, which is present from its very first scene: an exchange inside a university classroom between Monk and a white female student, who objects to the display of a book title on the whiteboard featuring the N-word. An irritated Monk proposes she “understand it within the context in which it’s written” and snaps at her to get over it—prompting the young woman to walk off in tears.

There’s a lot going on in this brief moment: lots of implications for a modern society where many intellectuals believe they’re forever walking on eggshells, navigating a mine-filled public discourse governed by merciless arbiters, the world never more enlightened nor more thin-skinned. This isn’t just a matter of so-called “wokeness” but extends into red tape and bureaucracy: when Monk scatters a family member’s ashes into the ocean, for instance, a busybody asks the grievers whether they have a permit. Moments like this bolster the film’s social critique by proposing a broader context in which aspects of social progress have clearly gone awry.

American Fiction cleverly connects these discussions to its protagonist and uses his abrasive personality to make us question whose “side” we’re on, if it’s possible to be on any at all. Most viewers would probably agree with Monk that university students ought to be able to understand cultural and historical context. But immediately after that initial altercation with his student, Monk is confronted by his superiors, who raise other issues about his conduct—drawing on an incident in which he asked a student whether his ancestors were Nazis. Monk fires back: “We were reading The Plot Against America and, trust me, the way he was squirming, they were.”

A comment like that gets us thinking about whether we’re in good hands—the moral equivalent, almost, of an unreliable narrator. Some aspects of Monk’s character reminded me of Bob Odenkirk’s protagonist in the so-so comedy series Lucky Hank—another embittered intellect from the school of humanities, angry at the world and especially the publishing industry. He’s painfully aware, like Monk, that in some respects he’s on the fringes of social acceptance, and doesn’t want it any other way—they won’t play ball or work on Maggie’s farm. At least that’s the song in their head: each man’s attempts at rebellion are mostly inconsequential and petty.

What would Monk think about American Fiction? He’d certainly have criticisms to make, grievances to air. I love how Jefferson got me contemplating the nature of the film via the nature of the protagonist; their personalities are inseparable. It’s almost like Monk is begging the director, from inside the narrative world, to decline the easy path, to do something different, to make something shrewd and spiky, something truly three-dimensional. On those terms this immensely captivating character study is a triumphant success.