American Fiction (dir. Cord Jefferson)

By: Adam Freed

One of the greatest challenges a director faces is to veil the immense degree of difficulty of a project and present their film in a way that makes it look easy.  Comedy is not easy, nor is crafting an inviting and intelligent socially aware commentary on the state of literature, film and racial representation in America.  Yet, with his virtuoso directorial debut American Fiction, Cord Jefferson (The Good Place) has stuck the landing on all counts.  In what summarily could be described as an adult family comedy, Jefferson’s razor keen film takes aim at positive representation, race dynamics and the complexities of an aging family all with aplomb. 

Exiting the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival with the top audience prize, American Fiction has already begun its assault on North America two full months prior to its scheduled December 22 release.  The gracefully balanced film is elevated by an ensemble cast greater than the sums of its parts.  The film stars Jeffery Wright (Westworld) as hyper educated, yet frustrated novelist “Monk” Ellison, a man who feels boxed in by his race despite his work having very little to do with pigment.  Wright is joined by a tandem of siblings played by Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish) and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us).  Both of whom present complex and dynamic characters without falling prey to the predictable tropes of comedic caricature.  The bond that Monk shares with each sibling is different and deeply layered with humor and heartbreak.  Very intentionally and silently throughout the film’s study of the Ellis family is the large screen depiction of an educated and borderline affluent family that is not immune to the challenges that all aging families will inevitably face.  Sterling K. Brown plays the perfect extroverted foil to Monk’s steady uptight demeanor, yet also delivers two of the film’s most poignant reflections disguised in humor,   definitive further evidence of Brown’s extraordinary talent as a screen performer to say the least. 

Cord Jefferson may be on the forefront of the evolution of screen comedy as society drifts farther away from The Hangover (2009) and into a more self aware and less absurdist era.  Genuine comedic moments that live in a tangible reality rather than the contrivances of trying to be funny seem a meaningful and productive shift.  Adding to this noble pursuit is supporting character Sintara Golden, played by a warm and wise Issa Rae.   Rae’s Golden draws Monk’s ire as she earns literary praise for a novel that he considers to be a black exploitation novel.  In American Fiction, Jefferson has perfected tonal balance and control that is comfortable ignoring the joke a minute formula in favor of allowing complex character studies to find humor in themselves and in the world around them.  Directorial debuts aren’t supposed to look this easy and yet be this insanely impactful.  With the intended respect of brevity, Cord Jefferson is next.   

American Fiction was screened in conjunction with Movie Archer’s coverage of the 59th Annual Chicago International Film Festival.

Target Score: 9/10 - Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut American Fiction is poignant, hilarious and socially impactful.  The rare comedy that presents audiences the opportunity to chase away emotional tears with joyous laughter.