About 11 years ago, while apparently writing for the Federal Office of Deficit Identification, I had a phone conversation with Jeffrey Wright. A movie of his was coming out that week, and now I had to look up the title because even the people who made it don’t remember it. By then Wright had become many people’s favorite actor. Mine too.
“It gets to the point where Wright can walk in the door in his first scene in a movie and the audience collectively grins knowing that they are in very good hands with this actor directing the show for however many minutes.” This is what I wrote about Wright, the leading actor in 2013’s “Broken City” (search). In that interview, Wright talked about the police commissioner character’s “mysterious quality, his stealth, (which) was important to him as an operator, as an observer, and above all as a survivor… power doesn’t scream because with. That’s what I was going for anyway.” ”
These qualities describe Wright quite well. His deep, back-of-throat voice commands attention without being theatrical. Its serenity is never static; He is always alert, thinking and telling the audience something about the person he is playing, step by step.
All of this is present and welcome in his latest film, the sly and engaging social satire “American Fiction,” but his work here Super It’s subtle and understated, in service of a largely reactive character surrounded by bigger, louder personalities. Even as director Cord Jefferson’s feature debut dulls its impact in the final few scenes, Wright keeps the interaction lively.
Wright’s character, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, is a college academic and semi-prestigious, low-selling novelist living in Los Angeles; in his view, the criminals (or the unsuspecting; the world has always been big enough for both) are white liberals. Monk experienced this with his white students; He is said to have been initially offended by a racial slur in Flannery O’Connor’s short story. Monk says: “I’m over it, Brittany. I’m sure you can do it too.”
He’s paying the price for it, but he’s been in decline for a while now. When Monk’s literary agent (John Ortiz) encourages his casually self-destructive friend and client to write something different, less “literary,” more “street,” he responds with a false Black memoir: tortured vernacular and violence Life of a bandit written with. every second page—filled with every stereotype and cliché on the list of best-selling Black authors. Title: “My Pathology.” Monk’s chosen author name: Stagg R. Leigh.
Boom! Game changer! $4 million movie discount! Monk is stunned, and the director and adapter spend the rest of Jefferson’s narrative (taken from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasing”) sweating through imminent exposure and scandal. “American Fiction” is set in Boston and the South Shore beach town of Situate. Monk’s family is important, and the stress of maintaining his masquerade adds to the comic tension.
Wright has a great cast around him; Each one has its ups and downs. Sterling K. Brown as Monk’s estranged brother; Tracee Ellis Ross as his sister; Leslie Uggams as the head of the family whose health is not good; Erika Alexander as the public defender across the street from Monk’s family vacation home; Everyone is a vital and resilient part of a true community event.
I just wish the last 20-25 minutes weren’t so orderly and, unlike the best of “American Fiction,” so tame. There are times when Jefferson’s skill as a writer exceeds his fledgling skills as a director. And part of me wonders how a more brutal sensibility might have been stirred into this premise. As it is, what we have is a serviceable film that blends seriously funny domestic material with bigger, more pointed social observations about white liberal guilt, code-switching Black writers (Issa Rae is welcome as Monk’s primary foil), and much more. .
That, folks, is how a modestly well-shot film behind the camera can take it up a notch or three. Everyone who sees and enjoys “The Held” has now achieved sweet-and-sour success over the holidays with the support of another great actor. Then go.
“American Fiction” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for language throughout, some drug use, sexual references, and brief violence)
Running time: 1:57
How to watch: Premieres in theaters December 21
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.