We watched “American Fiction,” a 2023 movie which opens with a blank screen and the unmistakable squeaking of a marker on a whiteboard. We pull back to see a college professor addressing a class, but we cannot see what’s written on the whiteboard behind him. A student says the word on the whiteboard is wrong. The teacher says he’s pretty sure he spelled it right. The student says the word is offensive. The camera pulls back to show what’s written on the whiteboard: It’s a title of a story by Flannery O’Conner. The includes the N-word.

The professor says, “This is a class on the literature of the American South. We’re going to encounter some archaic thoughts and coarse language, but we’re all adults here and I think we can understand it within the context in which it’s written.”

“Well, I just find that word really offensive,” says the student.

“With all due respect, Brittany, I got over it. I’m pretty sure you can too,” says the professor, who is Black. The student, who is white, exits the classroom upset.

I am going to avoid using the word “woke” in this review because I hate that stupid word. But it’s hard to avoid because “American Fiction” is in part a movie about wokeness.

The professor, we learn, is Thelonious Ellison. Most people call him “Monk.” He’s not doing well. He’s unpopular with students and colleagues; following the N-word incident, he’s suspended from teaching at the school. He’s bitter and angry, and turns that anger inward, expressing it outwardly by witty insults aimed at the people who bother him, which seems to be most people. The comments are funny and entertaining to us, the audience, but you can see how being around a person like that would be toxic in real life. Nonetheless, as a fictional character, he’s likable and fun. And when he turns off the nastiness, he’s a warm and loving person.

He’s a novelist, and his books aren’t selling. He blames it on a kind of racism. He’s a literary writer. His agent explains to him that publishers don’t want that from someone like Monk. They want a Black novel. “This IS a Black novel.” Monk says. “I’m Black. This is my novel.”

Monk spontaneously decides to write the kind of novel publishers want. Violent, semi-literate, about angry Black people living in the ghetto and shooting each other and being murdered by police. He calls it “My Pathology,” and then changes the title to “My Pafology.” To show his contempt for the publishing system, Monk has his agent submit he novel under a ghostname, “Stagg R. Leigh,” with a persona that “Leigh” is a fugitive from prison. Monk does interviews and meetings as Leigh, affecting a deep-voiced terse grunting speech. “My Pafology” and Leigh are cheap ripoffs of “The Wire.”

And Leigh’s book, unlike Monk’s literary fiction, sells. It becomes a bestseller. Monk was trying to ridicule white guilt and wokeness (ugh, that word), and instead he’s feeding it.

Monk lives and teaches in L.A.,but he returns home to Boston for a literary conference and to visit his family, from whom he is estranged. Monk’s mother is advancing into Azheimer’s and Monk finds himself with the duty of becoming primary caregiver. His family is affluent—both his late father and two siblings are medical doctors, and they have a live-in maid—but not as well off as they once were. What’s shown and not quite said explicitly is that Monk is appalled at the ruse he’s perpetrating as Stagg R. Leigh, but he needs the money to get his mother the best possible care.

We also see Monk’s attempts to overcome his emotional isolation and connect with his family and a pretty neighbor.

The whole thing reminds me of a Richard Russo novel, and I love a Richard Russo novel.

What ties the two plots together is a comment by Monk about Stagg R. Leigh’s novel, and books like it, “My life is a disaster, but not in the way you’d think reading this shit.”

The movie stars Jeffrey Wright as Monk and a solid cast of names and faces that I didn’t recognize, although I did recognize Leslie Uggams as Monk’s mother. I remember her turning up a lot in the 70s on game shows and second-tier talk shows like Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin. Then she surprised me with a starring role on “Roots,” paired up with Sandy Duncan—I remember thinking, holy shit those two can actually act. Then she fell off my radar until she reappeared as Blind Al, Ryan Reynolds’ roommate in the “Deadpool” movies.

Also featured is Sterling Brown, from “This Is Us,” as Monk’s brother, Cliff.

The screenwriter and director is Cord Jefferson, who previously worked as a writer on “The Good Place” and “Watchmen,” making his directorial debut. [imdb.com]

Jefferson talked in an Esquire interview about a scene where Monk is writing a sequence from Stagg R. Leigh’s novel. [esquire.com]

The scene in the novel features a young criminal confronting an older criminal. The younger criminal is brandishing a gun. Jefferson chose to cast two first-rated actors to play the two characters—Keith David, known to me as Childs, one of two characters who lives to the end of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982) and Okieriete Onaodowan, known to me as Hercules Mulligan in “Hamilton.”

Jefferson said:

We’ve all seen that scene of the writer pounding the keyboard frantically, then taking a big sip of coffee and getting back to it. That’s how you depict somebody intensely writing. But I thought, ‘We can’t have that. It’s tropey and silly, and it doesn’t get the audience’s minds going.’ So why not have these characters manifest in front of him? When I wrote that scene, I wrote the language to be very silly. It had to be ridiculous so that everybody could see how stupid this book is and what a sham it is. Then we got Keith David and Okieriete Onaodowan, who are both such tremendous actors. All of the sudden, it wasn’t silly anymore. They made it seem like the book might be good. I love what the scene became in their hands: suddenly you’re questioning whether or not the book is good, which is evidence that something as ridiculous as this book could become a hit.

A character named Sintara Golden is both Monk’s nemesis and inspiration. At the outset of the movie we see she is already fabulously successful playing the same game Monk plays: She went to Oberlin, got a job in publishing, and then made a success for herself writing a book affecting illiterate victimized Black voices. Her book is titled “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.” But unlike Monk, she’s doing everything in the open. Despite this, Monk thinks she’s just as cynical and pandering as he is. We come to see more of her, and learn that she’s playing a more sophisticated and sincere game than she first appears to be.

In an Esquire interview, Jefferson says he sometimes agrees with Monk and sometimes agrees with Golden.

The actor who plays Sindara Golden is Issa Rae, who apparently first become prominent on YouTube. [imdb.com]

About that first scene: Monk is right to push back against banning the N-word even in discussions of racism—even when used by Black people. But he didn’t have to be such a jerk about it to his student, “Brittany.” She’s just a kid. He’s being a bully.

Monk’s punishment for using the N-word has a parallel in real life: Black writer Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins novels, quit a job as a writer on “Star Trek: Discovery” in 2019 after he was chastised by the studio human resources department for using the n-word in the show’s writer’s room. Mosley was quoting someone else’s use of the word; he was making a point about racism. [hollywoodreporter.com]

Additional reading:

Cord Jefferson Wants You to Argue About American Fiction [esquire.com] That’s the Esquire article I mentioned earlier.

Did You Catch the Meta Nod of Sintara Golden’s Current Read in ‘American Fiction’? [themarysue.com]

Director Cord Jefferson was formerly a jouranlist, who often wrote articles about race and racism. Here’s his 2014 essay: “The Racism Beat.” [medium.com]