The Write-Offs — American Fiction

William J Hammon
11 min readDec 24, 2023

I’ve talked before in this space about the difference between subtlety and nuance in screenwriting. By basic definition, one feeds into the other, but in the practicalities of scripting for film, the two are similar but distinct ideas. You can be nuanced without being subtle, and vice versa. It comes down to the approach of the writer and the impact of their words. In this context, “subtle” serves as more of a synonym for “sly” when applied to the themes of the movie and the actions of the characters, whereas “nuance” feels more akin to “thoughtfulness” when applied to the effectiveness of the overall messaging.

Cord Jefferson’s feature debut, American Fiction (he’s primarily a TV writer, working on shows like The Good Place and Succession, and won an Emmy for Watchmen), is a textbook example of this crucial difference. Literally nothing in this film is subtle, and that’s the point. The satire is intentionally over-the-top and in your face. But through it, he’s able to pose a nuanced question to the audience, one that’s been asked for a long time, but Jefferson puts a fantastic new spin on it. The combination of Jefferson’s rapier wit and the performances of a truly brilliant ensemble, along with this clever application of very unsubtle nuance, makes this the best comedy of 2023 by a country mile, and one of my personal favorites of the year.

The tone is set from the very first scene, where Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright in a performance that should earn him an Oscar nomination of the Academy has any good sense) is in a college classroom teaching a group of literature students. When asked for discussion on his assigned reading, Ellison finds only disinterested or hesitant faces, until one young woman timidly raises her hand. She doesn’t want to discuss the piece they were assigned. Instead, she’s offended that he wrote the title on the board, because it contains the “n-word.” The conflict is as plain as day. Ellison is challenging the class to take in a piece of writing that happens to be controversial now, but in its time was considered quite normal, and as he himself puts it to this very white person, “I got over it. I’m sure you can, too.” The scene ends with the student fleeing the class in tears, presumably because Ellison tore her a new one after she insisted that him even writing the word in an academic context was inappropriate, again even though she’s white and has never experienced the hate that comes with its usage.

Now, you can quibble about the technique of the scene, because the idea of college kids thinking they know better than their elders and/or being too “woke” without perspective has been bandied about quite often over the last several years. But the cognitive dissonance is the heft of the sequence. There are millions of well-meaning people out there who still act disingenuously when faced with a practical application of their high-minded ideals. That’s the difference between subtlety and nuance demonstrated in the first two minutes. Jefferson and Wright lay the issue right at the audience’s feet, no beating around the bush, nothing obscured. It’s right there for everyone to see. The nuance is in the silliness of a young adult in the quasi-sheltered echo chamber that can be a college campus being more upset at even seeing six letters in a specific order (it’s never actually spoken aloud in the scene) than a man who has likely been actively harmed by it, and if he hasn’t, he’s still part of the demographic that historically has been. The fact that it’s played for laughs makes it hit just a bit truer than it otherwise would, and it tells the audience that we are still meant to have fun with this, rather than roll our eyes at a political lecture.

Anyway, the powers that be at the university are none too pleased with this situation, so they heavily suggest that Ellison take a sabbatical. He’s about to leave for Boston for a literary convention — in addition to his academic pursuits he’s also a published novelist, though he has trouble selling his book — and they all but demand he take the rest of the semester off. They can’t fire him because he has tenure, and strictly speaking he’s done nothing wrong, but they also don’t want the optics of disciplining a black professor for discussing a black identity issue, because again, they’re all white. The tiptoeing around race makes for a ton of laughs in this story, and living in a particularly liberal city like Los Angeles, trust me, I see this all the time. Again, the joke isn’t the racial element itself, but the intellectual dishonesty and the fear of acknowledging the elephant in the room.

Ellison’s professional frustrations are laid bare at the convention, where he can hardly draw any interested readers, while across the hall, the latest flavor of the month author, Sintara Golden (a fantastic Issa Rae), has a packed house to discuss her new book, We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. To watch Sintara, an Oberlin-educated literati who has clearly never lived in the poverty she writes about, instantly change into a stereotype to give a reading from her Ebonics-laced work and draw a standing ovation, is to watch this man’s soul die. It’s this idea that white people want to “amplify black voices,” but only if those voices conform to whatever pigeonholes they feel comfortable exploiting. There’s a shorter, but equally hilarious scene where Ellison goes to a book store looking for copies of his novel, only to find them on the “African-American Studies” shelf despite the fact that his book has nothing to do with that. He’s a black writer being told by one set of white people that his writing isn’t “black enough,” while another group dismisses his work as part of a racial niche simply because he’s black. Either way, the substance of what he has to say gets ignored.

This is a conversation that’s been a part of popular culture for decades, and I’m glad to see it continue. Way back when I was in school, literally in my first semester intro communications class, there was one lecture where the professor opened the floor for a simply stated question with no definitive answer: What is the proper way to depict black people in media? This was one of the most fascinating discussions I was ever a part of, as various students threw out TV shows like The Cosby Show (not knowing what we know now), Family Matters, Good Times, Sanford and Son, and so on, as well as movies like Glory, The Color Purple, Friday, and Boyz n the Hood. Which one was the most accurate, the one about a well-off suburban black family with doctors and intellectuals, or the one where a family struggles through daily hardships just to get by? Is it set in the inner city, or in any small town? Do they experience racism, or is the subject even broached? Who’s writing the show? Who’s directing the movie? Who’s starring in them? What do they bring from their own lives? And of course, the debate expanded to basically all minorities, be they ethnic, gender, religious, or anything else you can think of. One young lady of Indian descent brought up her troubling interpretation of one of the main characters on The Simpsons long before Hari Kondabalu even conceived of The Problem with Apu. It was gob-smacking to hear these perspectives I’d never even considered, because even if someone took offense, it was all done in good faith in hopes of raising awareness and coming to a better understanding.

That’s basically what Jefferson is going for with the satire here, but he also understands that the film can’t be just about that. This is where the family drama comes in. Ellison comes from a wealthy background (they even have a separate beach house and a live-in maid named Lorraine, played by Myra Lucretia Tayler, adding even more fuel to the demographic fire), but there’s been much discord over the years. Monk fell out somewhat with his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross, lots of fun in her limited screen time) and brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) over the behavior of their abusive father, as Monk, being the favorite, never saw the worst parts, and thus could live in denial. Cliff himself is in disarray over his divorce after coming out as gay, an identity that mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) refuses to acknowledge, and even if she wanted to it becomes exceedingly difficult when she’s diagnosed with dementia and has to be moved into a nursing home. The bluntness of all of these characters, whether intentional or not based on their circumstances, serves to humanize Monk and keep the laughter train rolling at a steady clip.

All of these stresses eventually lead Ellison to a meeting with a soon-to-be divorcee named Coraline (Erika Alexander), and the two hit it off, eventually beginning a relationship. She’s actually a fan of his work, and the two offer each other intellectual stimulation as well as emotional comfort. But even with that, there’s a rage that wants to scream to the world to get its head out of its ass and just function.

Faced with the potential end of his career and mounting expenses for his mother’s care, Monk decides to vent his frustrations onto the page, writing the extremely pandering My Pafology in a single night. Playing out tired, clichéd scenes in his living room (wonderfully performed by a small ensemble featuring the immaculate Keith David) of deadbeat fathers, gang violence, police brutality, and drug addiction, Monk gives the gatekeepers exactly what they say they want as a backhand to their so-called values, under the brilliant pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh.

So, of course, this is set up to be the biggest hit of his life. Submitting it to his agent Arthur (John Ortiz), Monk tells him to try and sell it to publishers, just to rub their noses in its naked absurdity. But lo and behold, they love it, using buzzwords like “raw,” and “powerful” and “brave.” The film is based on a novel called Erasure from 2001 by Percival Everett, but it plays like a combination of The Producers and a 2006 film called The Hoax, where Richard Gere played the real-life man who wrote a fake “autobiography” of Howard Hughes.

From this point forward, it’s all about escalation, as Jefferson through Wright dares the business side of writing to call him out and prove him wrong. Wright creates a persona for Stagg R. Leigh as an ex-con and a fugitive, giving interviews with his face obscured to build fake mystique. He takes meetings with a Hollywood screenwriter (Adam Brody) to show off how “ghetto” he is. He even changes the title of the book to simply Fuck! in an effort to get these capitalists to tell him that he’s going too far, and it just doesn’t happen. By the time he’s invited — as himself — to judge a “Book of the Year” competition (with Sintara) in which this parody appears as a candidate, and sees that Coraline consumes this intentional trash with the same aplomb that she takes to his sincere work (not knowing the former is by him), Monk is at his wit’s end, flabbergasted that this is how the black experience is reduced, thereby making his own incredible statement about identity politics.

But what really got me in this movie, more than anything else, is the meta level of the humor. Not only is Monk intentionally pushing the envelope in hopes of a backlash, but so too is Jefferson to a certain extent. I don’t think he’s necessarily trying to provoke anyone, but he makes it clear from the off that we in the audience might be just as ripe for mocking as the characters in the film. I mean, let’s just say it plainly. I’m a straight white man in my 40s. I could very well be the butt of the joke. And I’m completely fine with that. I like to think that my approach to these issues is more open-minded than absolutist, and that I take things at face value regardless of who it comes from. But I also know I have my foibles. Someone could say with all sincerity that they think I’m fawning over this movie because of my own sense of overcorrection. I’d disagree, but I’d at least have to entertain the possibility that there’s validity to the assertion, because I’ve done things in my life, both consciously and unconsciously, that have been based on negative perceptions. I’ve laughed at racial jokes. I’ve used “gay” as a pejorative. I get irked when I watch YouTube and they feed me ads I can’t skip in Spanish. I do my best, but it would be beyond ignorant to say that I’ve never contributed to the problem, whether I meant to or not. So if it turns out that Jefferson is ragging on me, or what I might represent, I can take the hit and still love what I’m seeing on the screen, and try to do a little better every day.

To go back to the college example, I argued with the young Indian woman about Apu, not because I didn’t buy her sentiment, but because I had encountered plenty of Indian immigrants working in convenience stores over the course of my life (so I knew the caricature wasn’t created out of whole cloth), and because I loved the fact that Apu was almost never “just” the guy at the Kwik-E-Mart. He was something of a pastiche in the first season, but basically all the characters outside of the main family were, because the show was still getting off the ground and finding its feet. But after that, Apu was arguably the most developed character apart from the titular clan (and maybe Moe), filtering dozens of stories through his perspective. I felt that shouldn’t be discounted. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that despite that there is a legitimate issue, because he still started as a trope, and then had to be shown that he was more than that, rather than just being not that. I still believe in the good of the character, but I understand where she was coming from.

That’s what makes American Fiction so great. In the end, it’s about learning. You have to examine whatever biases you have, be they implicit, explicit, or unintentionally ingrained through life experience you never even noticed. You can’t just pay lip service to an idea without committing to exploring it. You have to be genuine, even if it means doing something that angers people. If you can laugh at it all — and yourself — in the process, then you’re probably heading in the right direction. When it comes right down to it, the incredible cast of this film shows that the most genuine thing you can do is be who you are. Monk is a brilliant curmudgeon. Coraline can enjoy polish and turds. Cliff is a sexual being far beyond what the structure of his upbringing would have planned for him. Sintara is a curious opportunist and a charlatan. Lorraine is a woman of grace and love regardless of social status. And they’re all ultimately fine with that because they are themselves first, and their demographics second. And sadly — but most crucially, hysterically — the world is what it is as well. If there is an answer to that profound question that was asked in a lecture hall 20-plus years ago, this picture posits that the “proper” way to depict any group of people is, “in whatever way is profitable.” If you can recognize that and enjoy how wonderfully idiotic it is, then at least we’re making some progress.

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are your favorite cinematic satires? What kind of playful shit do you give your loved ones? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on December 24, 2023.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com