Oscars 2024: Sterling K. Brown and the Art of Levity in American Fiction

Sterling K. Brown has been nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for his role in ‘American Fiction’.
Oscars 2024: Sterling K. Brown and the Art of Levity in American Fiction

“Cliff’s not in a good place,” says Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), when Monk (Jeffrey Wright) asks her why their brother is not chipping in for their mother’s treatment. It turns out that coming out of the closet came at a cost for Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), a plastic surgeon whose wife divorced him, and kids resent him. The news comes as a surprise to Monk, who is forced to reckon with his strained relationship with his brother. 

Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction follows writer and professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, who finds himself frustrated by the double standards of a hypocritical publishing industry that cannot see past his race. In retaliation Monk leans into reductive Black stereotypes in his newest book, which becomes an overnight success. This unexpected (and rather unwelcome) professional victory is contrasted with Monk’s troubled family life.

As Cliff, Brown is the brightest spot in a subdued film. A black sheep, an outsider within his own family, Cliff comes across as a man trying to define his relationship with agency. Brown brings a certain likeability to Cliff, puncturing his character’s messiness and impulsivity with a levity that is charming. “I’ve only been gay for, like, five minutes. I gotta make up for lost time,” he says. 

Brown is adept at packing his acting with powerful emotion, as evidenced by his award-winning turn on the NBC drama This Is Us. In American Fiction, after Lisa’s untimely demise, her brothers are left to pick up the pieces. Cliff’s grief is laced with wry humour, bonding with Monk one moment and poking fun at his PhD the next. (When Monk asserts that he’s a doctor too, Cliff says, “Right. Maybe if we need to revive a sentence.”) He’s a bit of a loose cannon who does not appreciate when Monk ostensibly steps into the role of their late father and tries to tell Cliff what to do. Drugs; day-drinking; and hooking up with hot, younger men: Is Cliff just running away from his problem? Or is this him making a fresh start and finally living life on his own terms? 

Under the newfound spontaneity and constructed flamboyance, Brown brings out Cliff’s vulnerability; he is still nursing the wounds of a childhood spent in the shadow of his brother and having to hide his true self from his parents. In a candid conversation, Cliff doles out some much-needed perspective to Monk, who is in over his head with the problematic pseudonym he’s chosen to hide behind. Cliff’s biggest regret is that their father died not knowing that he was gay. When Monk suggests that perhaps their father would not have accepted his sexuality, Cliff says, “At least he’d be rejecting the real me.” It’s a poignant scene that ends with Cliff leaving a tender kiss on Monk’s forehead. It’s also a role reversal of sorts; now Cliff is the brother with profound wisdom, while it is Monk who craves comfort. As Brown described his character in an interview, “He’s sort of colouring outside the lines, but he is colouring with colours that feel authentic to him for the first time.”

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