Resentful to that response and juggling uneasy family dynamics back home, Monk is left to navigate the conditions under which his work is deemed desirable and marketable, as well as the personal demons that prevent him from moving forward in his own story. Stagg R. Leigh is revered while Thelonious Ellison is stagnant, digging his nails into the sand to keep himself and his family from slipping out to sea.
“American Fiction” is a thoughtful, although heavy-handed, film. The strength of its thesis successfully bonds the film together. And yet, there are more than a handful of moments, both comedic and dramatic, that plead for a reaction. A shot of Monk, after engaging in heated debate with Sintara about the white gaze, standing before Gordon Parks’ famous photograph of The Doll Test is just a sample of the film’s coarse approach to inspiring emotion. With so much consideration put into Monk’s existential crisis, these moments of sympathetic begging yank away the feeling of authenticity, and “American Fiction” turns into a frustrating tug-of-war.
Amidst Monk’s struggle to cope with the acclaim of his faux novel, the story of his family becomes a drama of its own. Death, sibling rifts, and his mother’s declining health only deepen Monk’s crisis of conscience about identity and issues. On the whole, these family sequences are effective, blending with the reality of Monk, thereby enhancing the burden of the fantasy of Stagg. Sterling K. Brown gives a spirited performance as Monk’s younger, reckless, and bawdy brother Clifford. Questions of historically stringent perspectives on Black manhood are well explored between Clifford as a gay man, Monk as a hyper-intellectual, and the implied presence of their late father, a man who is often recalled for his uncaring ways.
However, “American Fiction” often treats its Black women as accessories to the story. His sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), has little screen time, essentially functioning as a vessel for exposition before exiting to introduce the film’s first turning point. His girlfriend, Coraline (Erika Alexander), is there as moral support, uplifting Monk when Clifford tears him down. She is also the vehicle through which we can see Monk in his personal life, outside of writing or caring for his mother. Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), their live-in homeworker, is installed as a maternal replacement as his mom, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), declines. And finally, Sintara is there simply to be a foil to Monk’s philosophy. This sidelining of the Black female characters might have gone overlooked if Monk was the only character given the spotlight. But while “American Fiction” is his story, there is a great deal of effort to provide Clifford with history, nuance, and a full narrative arc.