Oscars 2024: American Fiction’s Exploration of Race and Storytelling

Nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, ‘American Fiction’ is adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel ‘Erasure’.
Oscars 2024: American Fiction’s Exploration of Race and Storytelling

Before Cord Jefferson came into the picture, author Percival Everett had rejected a series of filmmakers who approached him for an adaptation of his seminal novel Erasure (2001). This was one of the reasons Jefferson initially harboured apprehensions about broaching a potential adaptation. There was also the anxiety around doing justice to a novel that had resonated so deeply with people: “You have this book that you love, but you need to change it pretty drastically in order to make it a movie,” said Jefferson in an interview. When Everett gave Jefferson his blessing and told the screenwriter that he “understood the spirit of the novel”, Jefferson was relieved. “That was probably the greatest compliment I received on the script,” he said. 

With popular and critically acclaimed projects like Master of None, The Good Place and Watchmen to his name, Jefferson made his directorial debut with American Fiction (2023), which has received five Oscar nominations including one for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film, like the novel, follows an intelligent Black writer-professor named Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, who is frustrated by a hypocritical, pandering publishing industry that doesn’t think his writing is “Black” enough. When his books consistently fail to perform, Monk decides to write a satirical novel riddled with all the stereotypes associated with Black people. This turns out to be the book that launches Monk to stardom, albeit under the ridiculous pseudonym ‘Stagg R. Leigh’. As he grapples with a troubled family life, Monk must navigate his relationship with his race and an industry that cannot see past it. 

As a whole, American Fiction isn’t always compelling, but as an exercise in translating a process as internal as conceptualising and writing a novel on screen, Jefferson’s screenplay offers some clever storytelling. Erasure embeds a complete version of Monk’s satirical novel, entitled ‘My Pafology’, within the main narrative. This allows Jefferson to execute scenes like the one in which Monk sits at his laptop, nicely liquored up, typing furiously while quirky music plays in the background. We hear police sirens and suddenly, his study is also populated by his protagonist Van Go Jenkins (Okieriete Onaodowan) and his absent father Willy (Keith David). The two have a heated exchange (a gun is drawn at one point) while Monk sits calmly at the centre of all the action. Occasionally, one of them will break character and turn to ask Monk what he wants them to say, giving the writer feedback on his writing.

It’s a visually interesting sequence that brings the satirical story to life, but also quietly provokes you to wonder why Monk dismisses this form of storytelling so completely — as though it is beneath him, only deserving of parody. “I thought [that scene] legitimised the entire movie,” said Wright. “My character is mocking that type of dialogue and literature, but [Onaodowan and David] brought such a force, intentionality and power to it that it’s moving.” They compel you to take them and their story seriously.

The film’s screenplay meanders in parts, with some of its commentary being criticised for being dated and significantly tamer than Everett’s novel. However, Jefferson has been praised for capturing the essence of the book in the process of adapting it to a different format. When American Fiction was still in production, Everett expressed his excitement to NPR, saying “In the last four or five years as this generation of young Black artists are popping up, the people interested in making and adapting work has changed. It used to be 60-year old white guys looking to option something. And now it’s these young people who are interested in art and not commerce.”

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