My first reaction on reading Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure was, “How did he get away with that?” My first reaction on hearing of Cord Jefferson’s cinematic adaptation of that novel, American Fiction, was “How could he get away with that?” Yet both are triumphs – artistically, critically, and, relatively speaking, commercially – proving that perhaps more people than we suspect are hungry for this incendiary, complicated take on the place of the African-American writer in America.
Everett, like his character Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, has written over 30 books, including several retellings of Greek myth. He is best known for his astonishing satire of American publishing in the age of diversity, Erasure. It follows Monk, a middle-aged novelist and professor struggling to sell his book based on Aeschylus’s The Persians. As his agent keeps telling him, publishers are impressed by the consummately artistic novel, but at pains to understand what it reveals about the “African-American experience”. Monk learns of “We’s Lives in da Ghetto”, a debut by the black novelist Juanita Mae Jenkins who, she boasts, once spent two days in Harlem. He finds the novel horribly stereotyping, “like strolling through an antique mall, feeling good… and then turning the corner to find a display of watermelon-eating, banjo-playing darkie carvings and a pyramid of Mammy cookie jars”. Of course, it’s a smash hit.
Furious, Monk writes something of a cross between Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Sapphire’s Push (1996). It tells the story of Van Go Jenkins who, from age 12, has sired four children by four different women whom he treats with extreme violence. He titles the novel “My Pafology”, before renaming it “F**k”. When his agent sends the novel out under the name Stagg R Leigh (an echo of the gangster rapper Stagga Lee), it catapults to the top of the bestseller list, winning a literary award that Monk is on the jury for, despite his protests. At the ceremony, he ascends to the stage where, in a dizzying vision, “there was a small boy, perhaps me as a boy, and he held up a mirror so that I could see my face and it was the face of Stagg Leigh”.
Cord Jefferson’s debut feature, starring Jeffrey Wright as Monk, sometimes shies away from the novel’s more provocative elements, but at other times deepens its approach. It eschews some of the book’s jokes (Juanita Mae Jenkins is now Sintara Golden, so the hero of Monk’s novel no longer shares her name) but is still exceedingly funny, especially when it skewers the white people who still control publishing even as they pay lip service to diversity (as when the head of a publishing house grovels to “Stagg R Leigh” with two “Notorious RBG” posters – a homage to the liberal Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – on the office wall). It is shockingly bold for a wide-release film: in its achingly awkward opening, a white student is so aghast at Monk writing the title of a Flannery O’Connor short story containing the N-word on a whiteboard that the university puts Monk on an (unpaid) leave of absence.
More important are two major changes. First, “My Pafology/F**k” has been reined in: we are only shown one scene, and don’t get a sense of the book as a whole. In Erasure, the novel-within-the-novel has an offensive, rape-filled plot, but is also hilarious. This change weakens the book’s moral conflict where the reader is thoroughly entertained by what Monk himself rejects. Second, Sintara Golden is now on the jury of the literary prize alongside Monk, setting up a deeper exploration of her place in the publishing world. In a tense, difficult scene, Monk confronts her about her book. Played by the brilliant Issa Rae, Golden is ambivalent, self-questioning, even as she speaks confidently against the impossible standard Monk holds black authors to.
This is typical of a film in which characters speak to each other intelligently about nuanced subjects. Even if it breaks down in its third act, it is full of outstanding performances: Tracee Ellis Ross is dazzlingly funny and sad as Monk’s sister Lisa; Sterling K Brown is chaotic and charming as his brother Cliff; Adam Brody is exuberantly obnoxious as film producer Wiley. Wright’s Monk – dealing with his father’s suicide and the ensuing discovery of his love letters to mistresses, as well as an unabiding loneliness – is a masterpiece.
All this makes American Fiction a worthy answer to Erasure: a film that shows the “African-American experience” as far richer than it’s often allowed to be, worthy of representation as deep and capacious as that allowed to others. To paraphrase Monk: his life may be a disaster, but not for the reasons those in power think.
“American Fiction” is in cinemas from 2 February
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?