Oscars 2024: Is American Fiction Benefiting From the ‘Pafology’ it Critiques?

Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut is one of the nominees for Best Picture, and has been nominated in four other categories at the 96th Academy Awards.
Oscars 2024: Is American Fiction Benefiting From the ‘Pafology’ it Critiques?

Director: Cord Jefferson

Writer: Cord Jefferson; based on the novel by Percival Everett

Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown and more

Run-time: 118 minutes

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

At one point in American Fiction (2023), the protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is accused of being “unknowable”. He’s a writer-professor who is frustrated with a publishing industry that cannot see past his race and is determined to typecast him as a “Black author”. His old books are shelved in the African-American Literature section at bookstores, which frustrates him because he insists race plays no part in his stories. His newest book is rejected because it’s “not Black enough”. Monk would like to believe literature — specifically what he writes — is above such stereotypes. “I don’t even really believe in race,” he says to his agent, even as a taxi he hails deliberately bypasses him to stop in front of a white man a few feet away from Monk. It’s a detail that underscores Monk’s unknowability; from his righteous indignation at a performative publishing industry to his sticky relationship with his own race, we never really get a full sense of how we’re supposed to see the protagonist of American Fiction. Is Monk an idealist we should get behind or a naive man with a blinkered view of reality? Can a genuinely good writer, which is what Monk is supposed to be, truly be both?

Based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, American Fiction does not hesitate to make fun of the white-dominated American publishing industry, mocking editors, authors and marketers for the way they look to soothe their guilty consciences by overcompensating. The white characters in American Fiction all come off as simpering and caricaturish (of course the white girl schooling her Black professor on the use of the n-word has blue hair, a trait negatively associated with “wokeness” on the internet). In an age of tokenism, with white people fearful that their opportunities are being taken by people of colour, the film’s take on white anxieties is relevant. In the world of fiction, R. F. Kuang’s 2023 novel Yellowface features a white woman publishing a book under an Asian pen-name in order to lean into the appeal of non-white authors in today’s industry. Meanwhile, in the real world, white author Cait Corrain recently lost her debut publishing deal when it came out that she was anonymously review-bombing books by POC debutants, because she felt that their work would be spotlighted over hers. In context of this, the commentary in American Fiction should feel pertinent and timely. Unfortunately, it only feels simplistic.

Jeffrey Wright as Monk in American Fiction
Jeffrey Wright as Monk in American Fiction

Family as a Distraction

Partly as a practical joke and partly as a desperate retreat from the real world, Monk writes a parody book of his own after his sister passes away and his mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He titles it “My Pafology”, deliberately misspelling “pathology”. We see him writing a scene that features a gun-slinging Black man, a deadbeat dad and a run-in with the cops. “What’s Blacker than that?” says Monk drily. Ultimately, the joke turns out to be on Monk because much to both his and his agent’s surprise, the book is picked up by a leading publisher, gets optioned for a film, becomes a bestseller, and is nominated for the most prestigious literary prize in America.

To a large extent, American Fiction is held back by its outsized focus on Monk’s family life, which feels like a frustrating distraction from the irreverent drama of the publishing world. At its best, American Fiction grapples with a number of meaningful issues, with Monk at the centre of it all. Monk resents that Black people in media are reduced to their trauma. He is fed up of “old soaring narratives about Black folks in dire circumstances who still manage to maintain their dignity before they die”. And yet American Fiction doesn’t feel like it’s entirely on Monk’s side. We see how stiff and abrasive Monk can be, how he comes across as both uncaring and extremely self-conscious of his race. His brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) points out that Monk only used to date white women, and has a superiority complex about his intellectual persona. With his PhD, family beach-house, and a housekeeper who refers to him as “Mr. Monk”, Monk has the privilege to associate himself with conventionally white signifiers. He balks at the notion that his race is inextricably linked with his position as an author, and does not want his work to be judged on that basis. Yet Monk’s attitude comes across less as colour-blindness and more as wilfully ignorant.

A still from American Fiction
A still from American Fiction

Sintara vs. Monk

The film’s most compelling scene sees Monk share his concerns about Black literature with Sintara Golden (an excellent Issa Rae), whom he considers emblematic of a systemic problem in publishing. Sinatra’s debut novel We’s Lives in Da Ghetto is praised by critics as “raw”, “real” and “visceral”, much to Monk’s frustration; all he sees in Sintara is a polished, privileged Black woman who has nothing in common with the people she writes about. 

Although her intent may be more earnest than Monk, he points out that Sintara’s bestselling novel is not too different from Monk’s parody of a book, which is being taken seriously by the literary establishment. As a woman who went to an elite college and had a fancy publishing job in New York, Sintara’s novel discusses issues of which she has little knowledge or experience. However, she is keenly aware of what white publishers expect from a Black author, and We’s Lives in Da Ghetto feels like her way of gaming the system to have a successful book on her hands. She is frank about her decision to cater to white publishers, “giving the market what it wants”. Sintara also brings in the additional perspective of gender into the conversation, questioning if Monk is similarly contemptuous of white, male authors who write about the downtrodden. 

The compelling debate between Monk and Sintara
The compelling debate between Monk and Sintara

Monk says he sees the unrealised potential of Black people in this country, to which Sintara replies: “Potential is what people see when they think what’s in front of them isn’t good enough.” It’s a powerful scene in which both Monk and Sintara are making good points, but you are left wondering who is right, or at least, more right in this situation. Jefferson doesn’t show us enough of this clash and neither does he give us a resolution to Monk and Sintara’s debate. The two writers, however, have common ground in their disdain for Monk’s parody book (written under a pseudonym), but their opinions are silenced by their white counterparts, one of whom declares that “it’s essential to listen to Black voices right now”. It’s ironically fitting that a real conversation about Black identity is cut short by a politically correct spiel from a white person more interested in appearances than actually listening to Black people.

The ending of American Fiction is just as open-ended. We see Monk go up on stage to receive an award for the book he hates, but we don’t know what he actually says. The film cuts to Monk brainstorming potential climactic sequences with Wiley (Adam Brody), the producer of the movie based on his book. Monk says he doesn’t want to spoon-feed the moral of the story because “there is no moral”. By now, Monk has made peace with the fact that he cannot judge a system from his moral high ground on the outside, choosing instead to become a part of it and blurring the lines between his own fiction and reality in order to thrive creatively. It leads the audience to wonder how much of the film was real, and how much was sensationalised to appeal to commercial tastes. 

Some of the dialogues in American Fiction offer themselves up to a fascinating meta reading: Monk’s book is described as “awards-bait with a capital B”, with its movie rights sold to a producer who “specialises in Oscar-baity ‘issue’ movies”. One cannot help but wonder if the five Academy Award nominations that American Fiction has scored this year are a product of the very phenomenon it is satirising. 

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