Oscars 2024: Jeffrey Wright’s Novel Approach in American Fiction

Nominated for Best Actor, the actor brings the frustrations of a Black author to life with dry humour and grumpy charm.
Oscars 2024: Jeffrey Wright’s Novel Approach in American Fiction

After critically acclaimed and award-winning performances in Angels in America (2003) and Westworld (2016), it is Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction (2023) that gave Jeffrey Wright his first Oscar nod. For his role as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a writer-professor who is disillusioned by a performative publishing industry that seems determined to typecast him as a “Black author”, Wright has been nominated for Best Actor at the 96th Academy Awards. 

In the opening scenes of the film, Monk is, as his colleagues delicately put it, “on edge”. During his class on the literature of the American South, Monk has a passive-aggressive exchange with a white student who is uncomfortable with his use of the n-word (“I got over it,” he says. “I’m pretty sure you can too.”) Later, he is advised to take a “mandatory break” from teaching. With his old books not performing well and new publishing prospects drying up, Monk is frustrated. He resents the fact that his books are shelved in the “African-American Literature” section at book-stores, when he believes that his writing is entirely divorced from race, and deserves to be judged on its merit. (In fact, he claims not to believe in race altogether, while turning a blind eye to the microaggressions to which he is subjected.) Baffled by the success of books that lean into stereotypes about the Black community, with a disproportionate focus on their pain and trauma, Monk decides to write “My Pafology” almost as a practical joke — only to find it brings him the success that has eluded him all these years. 

Part satire and part family drama, American Fiction gives Wright a chance to show his range as an actor. There’s Monk’s sentimental side, seen in his tense relationship with his family, like when Monk suddenly finds himself responsible for his ageing, ailing mother, grappling with the death of his sister or attempting to connect with his chaotic younger brother (played charmingly by Sterling K. Brown). Despite his arrogant and occasionally condescending bluster, Wright is careful to ensure that Monk's vulnerabilities are always in sight. The actor has said in interviews that director Cord Jefferson had always imagined Monk being played by Wright. “He also said that he had no plan B, that he had done it with me in mind,” said Wright. The Oscar nomination is just confirmation that Jefferson was on the right track.

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