‘American Fiction’: A Charming Satirical Film And Dark Horse Oscar Contender

Kevin Gosztola
The Wide Shot
Published in
7 min readJan 11, 2024


Screen shot from the promotional trailer for “American Fiction” | Fair use as it is included for the purpose of commentary and criticism.

Overwhelmed by family tragedy and an unraveling professional life, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison acts upon a spark of madness within him as a writer. He types out the words, “My Pafology by Stagg R. Leigh.” Two Black characters, a young man in a doo rag and a deadbeat father, appear in front of the desk where Monk sits.

The scene in “American Fiction” evokes the parody of 1987’s “Hollywood Shuffle,” produced, directed, and co-written by Robert Townsend. Both Van Go Jenkins and Willy the Wonker could easily be graduates from “Black Acting School,” and that may not be a coincidence.

Cord Jefferson, who wrote and directed “American Fiction,” described “Hollywood Shuffle” as a “spiritual ancestor” to his project.

“I loved that movie,” Jefferson told the New York Times. “I probably saw it before I was 10. It opened my eyes to this idea that you can talk about these things that are very serious but also have fun with them, that not only is it OK to laugh, you need to laugh because otherwise you’ll just be miserable all the time. It blew my mind wide open.”

More than 35 years later, Townsend’s first-time feature is a beloved cult classic. But “Hollywood Shuffle” never had the success with critics that Jefferson’s first-time feature has enjoyed.

It is well-known that Townsend spent $60,000 of his own money and maxed out several credit cards in order to complete “Hollywood Shuffle.” Fortunately, Jefferson did not have to risk going into debt to make “American Fiction,” but it was never a guarantee that the film would be made.

After he stumbled across Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, Jefferson adapted the book and pitched the project to over a dozen companies. Orion Pictures (owned by Amazon MGM) was one of only two companies to offer a deal.

Studio or company executives claimed that they “loved” the script. Yet, according to Jefferson, the vast majority maintained that they worked at a company, where “American Fiction” could never be made.

As a result, the fact that Jefferson’s film even exists — and was recently nominated for three Screen Actors Guild awards — is a triumph. It has developed into a dark horse contender for winning an Academy Award.

“American Fiction” revolves around Monk (Jeffrey Wright), a Black author who does not really think of himself as a Black author. His career has primarily involved contemporary adaptations of Greek plays, and he is trying to convince a publisher to green light his latest book, The Persians. But Monk finds the publishing industry is more interested in what they can market as a Black book, like the new best-selling novel from Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) called We’s Lives In Da Ghetto.

When he mischievously conceives of the idea for My Pafology, it is an expression of how sick he is with how the work of Black authors is limited by the industry. Monk wants to “rub their noses in the horse shit they solicit.” However, when white publishing executive Paula Baderman (Miriam Schor) offers Monk more money than he has ever been offered, his agent Arthur (John Ortiz) sees dollar signs and is eager to turn Monk’s joke into a lucrative deal.

Monk’s middle finger to the publishing industry unfolds like a prank. The amusement for Monk, as well as those watching the film unfold, is how far white publishing executives and movie producers are willing to go to squeeze profits out of what they naively or shallowly believe is an authentic Black story. And as Monk’s circumstances put him in a position where he needs the money from My Pafology, he becomes more inclined to allow the marketed trash to benefit him.

Jefferson astutely explores how publishers define and market what they see as Black experiences while also balancing that with an equally pointed assessment of the ease in which the publishing and movie industry panders to white liberal audiences to cash in on their guilt.

In one particular scene, Monk is in bed watching television and a montage of clips from movies for “Black Stories Month” plays. It reflects Monk’s annoyance with the narrow spectrum of Black stories made popular by Hollywood.

Here is the montage as described in Jefferson’s script:

…gang violence in Baby Boy, slaves lined up in Antebellum, a teen mother in Precious, police brutality in Straight Outta Compton, Chris Rock’s character smoking crack in New Jack City, Morris Chestnut shot in the back in Boyz N’ The Hood. Monk’s cellphone buzzes…

During an interview for the Hollywood Reporter, Jefferson said that he loved “New Jack City” (1991) and “12 Years A Slave” (2013). He enjoyed “Django Unchained” (2012), and both Wright and Jefferson agreed that “American Fiction” should not scold “people and artists for making the art that they wanted to make.” But it was important for “American Fiction” to ask, “Why are these the stories that we’re only allowed to tell?”

“Why is it only these? Why is it always these? Why is it these to the omission of every other story that we could be telling you about Black people and Black lives? That to me is the more interesting question,” Jefferson added.

Jefferson nails many of the finer details, like the posters of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or RBG, hanging behind the white publishing executive Baderman that have “Truth” and “Justice” emblazoned on them. Or the fact that the movie producer Wiley (Adam Brody), who was in prison for a white collar crime, believes that was enough for him to understand the Black experience. Or the white middle-aged lady being the first one to stand up at the book festival to applaud Sintara Golden’s We’s Lives In Da Ghetto.

The catalyzing incident for Monk, which forces him into a leave of absence from the University of Southern California (USC), is worth mentioning too. A white female student objects to Monk teaching The Artificial N****r by Flannery O’Connor or writing the word on his dry erase board. She actually tells Monk, a Black professor, that she finds the word offensive. Monk cannot stop himself from lashing out at the student, who bursts into tears and leaves the class.

Another film from 2023, Kristoffer Borgli’s “Dream Scenario,” dealt with college professors losing tenure over accusations from their students that range from serious to absurd. Yet unlike “Dream Scenario,” Monk does little to fight his English Department colleagues. He never transforms into some warrior against “cancel culture.”

Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2000) is another film that Jefferson considered an influence. That film revolves around a television writer (Damon Wayans), who revives the blackface minstrel show. White television executives wildly approve.

Lee’s satire about the dehumanization of Black people in American television and cinema shares similarities, however, it is much more bombastic than Jefferson’s satire.

The humor in “American Fiction” never becomes too zany, a deliberate choice by Jefferson, who did not want to produce a farce. The satire stays grounded in the personal struggles of Monk (Jeffrey Wright) and his family. He maintains a levity that helps him achieve his goal of creating a film with broad appeal.

Few films truly push boundaries in ways that may make it easier for the next filmmaker to come along and make their project.

One woman in her seventies, who auditioned for the role of Agnes, said to Jefferson that she could not believe someone was letting him make this movie. She had worked in the business for a half century. Jefferson imagined she had been limited to roles as a slave or unwed mother. Now, someone had finally come along with a project that dealt with issues that she had confronted throughout her entire career.

Jefferson maintains he was lucky to make the film. As he revealed, 14 different distributors and streamers were offered a chance to make “American Fiction.” The meetings with major studios or companies went well, and Jefferson was prepared for a “bidding war.” Only Orion and another unnamed company were serious about making the film.

A number of times, Jefferson says he was told, “Oh man, I really wish I worked at a place where we could get this movie made.”

“This is not a $150 million movie that, if it flops, people are going to lose their jobs and people are going to go bankrupt. It’s a cheap movie that would have been a drop in the bucket for these places. But people just didn’t have the will. They just didn’t want to risk it,” Jefferson concluded.

Over $200 million was spent on “Aquaman 2,” and over $274 million was spent on “The Marvels.” Both flopped when released in United States movie theatres in 2023. Yet the movie industry viewed them as safe bets.

Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” invites movie industry executives to rethink what is and is not a “risky” project. It demands that they reflect on their deep-seated prejudices about movies that audiences are willing to see in theatres.

Millions of dollars are spent by studios every year to promote films like “Aquaman 2” or “The Marvels.” Imagine if studios or distribution companies spent even a quarter of that money on so-called specialty films like “American Fiction.” They would probably see such projects are less risky than the franchise movies or reboots that they unquestioningly churn out for mass audiences.



Kevin Gosztola
The Wide Shot

Journalist, film/video college graduate, and movie fan. Previously published by Fanfare and Counter Arts. https://letterboxd.com/kgosztola/