• Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

It was almost twenty years ago when Crash won the Oscar for Best Picture. I’ve already said my piece about this, and how 2005 was such a godawful year for movies in general. But there’s something I neglected to ask, a question that only became clearer and more pertinent after a few more years of hindsight: Have we really come so much farther in the time since?

Sure, we have a great many more black filmmakers in the spotlight: Ava DuVernay, Nia DaCosta, Ryan Coogler, and Jordan Peele are only a few of the many black filmmakers to gain commercial and critical mainstream success in Hollywood in recent years. Even now, we’ve got Blitz “The Ambassador” Bazawule directing an adaptation of The Color Purple running in theaters nearly 40 years after the previous attempt from white-ass Steven Spielberg. On the other hand, it’s not like white directors telling black stories has completely gone away or stopped being lucrative. Remember, it was only five years ago when a goddamn Farrelly Brother directed Green Book to a Best Picture win.

While there have certainly been exceptions (the Black Panther movies come to mind, ditto the recent Haunted Mansion movie), it feels like every film with a majority-black cast has to be exclusively about race. If it isn’t a film about slavery, the civil rights movement, police brutality, drug dealing, or some other kind of American racial trauma, it’s like the film can’t get mainstream recognition as an awards contender or a box-office hit. (Seriously, people, Missing is fucking awesome.) That or it’s dismissed as a throwaway trifle (The Photograph, anyone?).

Granted, racial trauma is still very much an issue that we as a culture need to continuously grapple with. But part of me wonders if the conversation is still stuck in 2005. I know, pop culture is a massive beast that takes time to change directions, everything is changing faster than anyone can keep up with, and white cis-het people still hold nearly all the inertia.

But maybe — just maybe — black voices aren’t as underrepresented as they used to be. Or maybe there are certain portrayals of black people that are overrepresented. Maybe it would help to see portrayals of black people who are more than symbols of racial trauma so we can start seeing them as actual human beings with fully-realized lives. Maybe — despite all the new BIPOC voices in the mix — we remain stuck because white people still control the terms and tone of the conversation.

So here’s American Fiction, written/directed/produced by Cord Jefferson in his film debut after a truly impressive career in writing television. (“The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore”, “The Good Place”, “Watchmen”, “Station Eleven”, holy shit!) That said, the film was adapted from the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett. I looked it up and yes, both men are black.

Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, an author who moonlights as a college professor because it’s been that long since he last sold a book. Trouble is, he’s a black man who rejects the social construct of race, though everyone else in the world insists on pigeonholing him under “African-American Studies” despite the fact that his books are anything but. Ellison is further discouraged by the overnight success of Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), whose book sells like wildfire off of excerpts that read like profanity-laden typo-ridden caricatures of outrageous black stereotypes.

What’s worse, Monk comes home to Boston for a book conference and reconnects with his family there, just in time for a series of massive life-altering events to befall the family. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that these events leave Monk badly and immediately in need of cash. In other words, he needs a book to sell.

His solution: Take what Sintara did and go further with it. Write a story about a beleaguered black drug dealer so loaded with overwrought racist stereotypes that nobody could possibly take it seriously. He even wrote the book under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh (fucking seriously) with the pretense of basing the whole ridiculous story on the life of this blatantly fictional character.

Trouble is, the book finds a publisher. And then it finds a movie producer. And then it finds talk show hosts and critics and awards judges who make idiots of themselves to fawn over the emperor’s new clothes. As Ellison keeps making the whole thing bigger and dumber and more outrageously fake, every white liberal crusader keeps doubling down on how “real” and “authentic” and “provocative” and “important” the whole thing is.

See, Monk’s crucial mistake was in forgetting white people’s greatest superpower: Denial. It doesn’t even matter if the whole thing is publicly proven a hoax, white people would find some excuse to keep it going so they don’t look like idiots and they can keep on pretending to be anti-racist Good Samaritans. (I can hear them now — “It’s true in every way that matters!” “He’s still a black man and we need to support underrepresented authors!”) I might add that as one character points out, white people aren’t really interested in what’s true. White people aren’t even interested in what black people have to say, necessarily. What matters is that white people want to feel absolved of white guilt. To paraphrase somebody wiser than I, people are desperate to feel good and smart and right, especially about systemic racism.

On the other hand, we go back to my initial point about how mainstream white audiences apparently aren’t interested in films about black people unless it involves some portrayal of black trauma. If white people keep glamorizing films in which black people are tortured slaves or victims of police brutality, it raises the question as to whether white people are really more interested in addressing racial trauma or fetishizing it. Moreover, how does it affect black people when so many of their portrayals in mainstream media are depictions of racial trauma?

Late in the movie — without getting too deep into spoilers — we see an awards committee debate over whether to give Stagg R. Leigh the top honors. The two black judges say no, but the three white judges say yes. The motion carries three to two, so Leigh gets the award over the black judges’ objections. And then a white judge says, without a hint of self-awareness, it’s important to give Leigh the award because “we need to give black writers a voice.” That’s the whole movie in one scene, right there.

Getting back to our main character, Monk is a cynical ivory tower intellectual who wants to write and publish thoughtful quality books. Trouble is, he’d have an easier and more lucrative time writing books that aren’t as difficult to pick up and read. It’s the classic high-art/low-art bullshit, but with an intriguing twist: This particular book is a kind of low art that makes the reader feel better about themselves in the bargain. At the potential cost of stereotyping and dehumanizing an entire race of people, but at least the reading audience pretends to care about them. Then again, if the audience claims to care about people while also tokenizing and stereotyping them, is that really a step forward?

Consider the story of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known by his stage name of Stepin Fetchit. As I’ve briefly discussed before, Perry had the distinction of being the first black actor to become a millionaire, and he did it by blacking up and performing as a minstrel character. Even if Stepin Fetchit was a character designed to degrade black people while Stagg R. Leigh is held up as a means of inspiring others to help black people (going by the audience’s intentions, not the author’s), the parallels to Monk and his alter ego are uncanny.

Yes, Monk is getting fabulously wealthy by indulging in racist stereotypes. Yes, he’s catering to the unhealthy impulses of white people by giving them what they think they want. On the other hand, if white people are going to indulge in this racial stereotype shit and somebody’s going to get rich off it, why shouldn’t it be a black person profiting by it? Why can’t a black person profit off the fetishization of black racial trauma? Why can’t that black person be him? For that matter, if he’s a black man getting successful off of white people’s money, could that be considered a net positive or at least a silver lining?

With all of that said, it bears remembering that Monk is a writer stuck up his own ass. Yes, stories and books matter. Yes, how demographics are portrayed in mainstream media matters. But then Monk goes a step further and judges the ordinary consumer on the grounds that whatever they buy and read is a reflection of their character. While totally forgetting his own point that if all anyone sells is trash, then all anyone’s ever going to buy is trash.

And anyway, sometimes a book is just a book. Oftentimes, what you like is just what you like, nothing more and nothing less. Though Monk may disagree with Sintara Golden’s book or the works of his pseudonymous alter ego, it’s really none of his business if anyone enjoys those books unironically and nobody owes him an explanation or justification as to why.

This is all fascinating stuff, conveyed through diabolically clever satire. It certainly helps that the filmmakers keep the focus on Monk throughout the whole thing, focusing on his exasperation and visible discomfort as the lie keeps getting bigger and bigger. It makes the film genuinely funnier while keeping the themes in focus and centering the black protagonist instead of the white supporting characters. And that’s not even getting started on the dialogue that Wright has to work with — if you thought Paul Giamatti did a great job delivering all those withering zingers in The Holdovers (and he totally did, I want to be clear on that) just wait until you get a load of what Wright turns in here.

But then we get to the other half of the movie. Yes, this is all the more interesting half, the stuff that really makes the movie worth watching. The other half of the runtime is taken up by Monk’s family and hometown acquaintances.

The smaller and more personal details are nowhere near as interesting or thematically pertinent, but I get why they take up such a huge chunk of the movie all the same. To start with, his family (mostly his ailing mother, played by Leslie Uggams) adds to the stakes of the film by giving Monk even greater motivation to sell a book quickly, make more money, keep his ruse a secret, and so on. I might add that these supporting characters (mostly Monk’s brother, a gay man with a drug problem as played by Sterling K. Brown) provide some vital comic relief separate from the heavier themes and satire. Another highlight is Coraline (Erika Alexander), the love interest who helps to flesh out Monk as a character while also demonstrating the personal toll of Monk’s overnight success and the accompanying 24/7 secrecy.

More importantly, we hear numerous times from many of Monk’s friends and relatives that Monk was his father’s favorite and he’s growing up to be very much like his father. Troubling, as Monk’s father committed suicide some years ago, and Monk is only just now the last one to know that his father was seeing numerous other women on the side. None of this feels relevant at first, but it all eventually ties neatly into the overall theme of identity. It leads Monk to contemplate the personas we invent for ourselves and what we hide from other people. It’s a sweetly personal angle to the greater “secret identity” premise.

But even more than all of that, I think the normalcy might be the point. All the personal drama pertaining to Monk’s home life features ordinary black people going about their ordinary lives. They’re not drug dealers (with the possible minor exception of Brown’s character), they’re not scraping by in the ghetto, and none of them are killed or tortured by law enforcement. We don’t even see any of them interact with a single white racist, so far as I recall.

Put simply, the film argues that we need more portrayals of BIPOC people in cinema without portraying them as symbols of racial trauma, and then the film went to deliver such a portrayal. I admire that level of commitment.

That said, it’s unavoidably true that the film takes a dip in quality whenever Monk and his agent (Arthur, played by John Ortiz) aren’t working directly with each other or with anyone interested in the book. The ending is another sore spot. Yes, I like how the film tries to subvert expectations, and I love how the ending ties all the themes together. Unfortunately, there’s a degree of ambiguity that makes the plot difficult to track with any kind of clarity. I don’t know if parsing out the last few minutes like they did was the right move.

Even so, American Fiction is easily one of the best satirical works I’ve seen this side of Armando Iannucci. It’s wickedly intelligent and surprisingly poignant; a diabolically clever examination of race, identity, and trauma on a personal level and in our media. Every single actor is delightful to watch, and Jeffrey Wright has more than earned his leading showcase at this point. Most of all — and I can’t stress this enough — the film is funny, funny, funny. From the self-deprecating jokes to the withering portrayal of white people taking social activism far too seriously, it’s a film that makes you think critically even while you’re laughing your ass off.

This one gets a rock-solid recommendation. Don’t miss out.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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