Oscars 2024: Jeffrey Wright’s star quality shines in Best Picture-nominated American Fiction

A still from American Fiction showing Jeffrey Wright as Monk
Jeffrey Wright as Monk in American Fiction
American Fiction (15, 116 mins), drama/comedy
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Erika Alexander, Issa Rae, John Ortiz, Leslie Uggams, Sterling K Brown
Director: Cord Jefferson

WHILE Jeffrey Wright has long been recognised as a reliably great actor who elevates any project he’s involved with, he’s too often been utilised as a supporting player rather than a leading man.

From Bond (though even his appearance as Bond’s CIA chum Felix Leiter couldn’t save the leaden Quantum of Solace) and Boardwalk Empire to Westworld and Wes Anderson flicks like The French Dispatch and last year’s Asteroid City, Wright has long been adding value on the big and small screens.

Happily, as the Washington DC performer approaches his seventh decade, writer/director Cord Jefferson’s smartly satirical, emotionally rich and often outright hilarious directorial debut has provided the actor with a rare opportunity to prove he can ‘carry’ an entire feature: the fact Wright is currently up for a Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar – one of five nominations for the film, including Best Picture – has confirmed what fans already knew.

Wright plays Thelonius ‘Monk’ Ellison, a frustrated LA-based author of high-brow fiction whose career has brought him a degree of critical acclaim without ever troubling the best-seller lists. With his writing stalled behind a new offering that his long-suffering agent, Arthur (the brilliant John Ortiz), has been unable to sell, Monk is making ends meet by teaching college.

However, an early scene reveals that this is also not going so well. The increasingly temperamental tutor is on the brink of detesting his ever more easily offended students – such as the ‘outraged’ white girl who can’t fathom why she should even have to look at the title of Flannery O’Connor’s The Artificial Nigger, much less actually attempt to read the story itself – and colleagues who are growing exasperated with his mercurial behaviour.

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An enforced leave of absence for Monk eventually leads this black sheep back east for a reluctant visit to the rest of the Ellison family – his paediatrician sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), plastic surgeon brother, Cliff (Sterling K Brown, also Oscar-nominated), their elderly mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) and their beloved housekeeper, Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor).

Meanwhile, as if to highlight his continued lack of commercial success, debut novelist Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) is enjoying media-saturation with We’s Lives In Da Ghetto (just one of many bad book titles the film has fun with), a book Monk views as a compendium of every imaginable negative stereotype related to African American culture.

A still from American Fiction showing Erika Alexander as Coraline and Jeffrey Wright as Monk
Erika Alexander as Coraline and Jeffrey Wright as Monk. Picture: Claire Folger (Claire Folger/Claire Folger)

At his wit’s end career-wise, and with unexpected family events resulting in the need to make some real money, fast, the exasperated author resolves to take a venom and whiskey-fuelled stab at penning his own blaxploitation classic, just to prove a point.

The result, My Pafology by the mysterious Stagg R Leigh, is a secret satire, a full-on, gratuitous violence and melodrama-riddled mockery of everything Monk hates about ‘black fiction’. It’s the polar-opposite of his worthy previously published works, some of which have been read and enjoyed by his promising new Boston-based love interest, Coraline (Erika Alexander).

Can you guess what happens next?

American Fiction offers a searing, laugh-out-loud take-down of the literary world, and indeed the movie-making world which circles it, shark-like, in the hope of snapping up another hit page-to-screen adaptation (the film itself is based upon Percival Everett’s novel, Erasure), run by privileged white elites keen to occasionally platform new works by African American talent considered ‘raw’ and/or ‘real’ just often enough to bolster those all-important diversity optics, usually – to Monk’s chagrin – at the expense of the myriad other black experiences being written about.

A still from American Fiction showing Adam Brody as Hollywood exec Wiley and and Jeffrey Wright as Monk/Stagg R Leigh
Adam Brody as Wiley and Jeffrey Wright as Monk/Stagg R Leigh

That stuff is great fun, and Wright has a blast playing the stuffy Monk’s attempts to ‘become’ the streetwise ex-con turned novelist he’s conjured up for the benefit of ingratiating publishing and movie execs (portrayed by Miriam Shor and Adam Brody respectively) waving around high six-figure deals, but at heart, American Fiction is a really good family drama about the dangers of becoming entrenched by our own often erroneous estimation of ‘who we are’ in relation to our kin.

It’s an auspicious debut for Jefferson as a director, and Wright is tremendous, as we’ve come to expect. If he wins an Oscar, it won’t be down to the Academy attempting to course-correct the whole #oscarssowhite thing.

Well, not entirely anyway.

Rating: 4/5
American Fiction is showing now at QFT Belfast, tickets and showtimes at queensfilmtheatre.com