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Anti-‘woke’ racial themes permeate American Fiction

Anti-‘woke’ racial themes permeate American Fiction
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What constitutes a “black” story? If the novelist, screenwriter, or director behind the story is black, is that sufficient? If the characters are of African descent, is that good enough? Or are there certain requisite elements in terms of setting, plot, dialect, and the moral character of the protagonists that ultimately determine the answer? And, if there are, what becomes of a black author who’d rather write a retelling of Aeschylus than a story about urban drug dealers and teenage mothers?

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Cord Jefferson’s 2023 Oscar-winning American Fiction, now streaming on Amazon Prime, deliberately refrains from providing all the answers to these questions. However, like Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, on which the film is based, it definitely has a lot of fun exploring them.

As in the source material, American Fiction tells the story of a college professor and author of literary fiction, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (played by Jeffrey Wright), who is dealing with a variety of professional setbacks, personal insecurities, and general struggles of middle-age.

After being away from his upper-middle-class New England family of mostly successful doctors for what seems like at least a few years, Monk returns to his hometown of Boston for a professional conference. While he’s there, his sister dies suddenly of a heart attack, he learns his mother is succumbing to Alzheimer’s, and he finds out his once-closeted, homosexual brother is suffering from a drug problem following a messy divorce from his wife.

Monk also happens to be black, which is hurting him professionally — not because of overt racism in the publishing industry but because his novels are not “black enough” for upper-middle-class white people who spend more time thinking about race than he does.

That particular audience and, consequently, publishers want something along the lines of the new runaway bestseller, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, an apparent stand-in for the likes of Push (later adapted into the film Precious), which Monk sees as a genre of fiction that traffics in the most abhorrent stereotypes about black people and that doesn’t speak to his own experience.

Yet, one night, while frustrated and maybe a little drunk, Monk hammers out a book about deadbeat dads, crack dealers, rappers, and police violence that may also be an attempt to work through problems he had with his father, who had committed suicide several years earlier. When he sends the manuscript, titled My Pafology, to his agent to send to publishers using a pseudonym, he intends it to be something of a middle finger, perhaps akin to an Alan Sokal paper on the transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity. 

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In turn, a publisher offers him an absurd amount of money he desperately needs and even acquiesces to a later demand to retitle the book with a single expletive.

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From there, the audience is treated to several episodes in which Monk must convince people from the publishing and film industries (as eventually there is a lucrative movie deal) that he is in fact the sub-literate ex-con who penned the work that represents everything he despises while also wrestling with why people are so enthralled by it.

Although such scenes provide numerous laughs and touch upon some interesting questions, they remain well-balanced by the very human stories of Monk and his family that are more reminiscent of Alexander Payne than John Singleton. These ultimately facilitate the film’s ability to work on a meta level by letting the audience ponder whether that story of family tragedy and midlife angst is more or less of a “black” story than My Pafology and whether that question should even matter.

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Daniel Nuccio is a Ph.D. student in biology and a regular contributor to the College Fix and the Brownstone Institute.



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