Cards on the table. I’ve probably read Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure more than most people. I’ve taught it, and I’ve written about it as academic satire in my 2019 book The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual. In fact, Erasure was one of the books that inspired The Blackademic Life. They both take up the niche topic of academic novels—stories about professors, students, and university life. I’ve also reviewed other Everett novels, including Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Assumption, and So Much Blue. Everett is skeptical about the truth-value of race as a concept, but that hasn’t kept him from writing about it extremely well, usually with an eye for the absurd. He’s done so in everything from Erasure to I Am Not Sidney Poitier (an intraracial parody of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) to the severely underrated A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond (as good a novel as any to help understand the weird, ahistorical cynicism of the MAGA movement) to The Trees, Everett’s recent award-winning dark comedy of lynching and Emmett Till, set in my home state of Mississippi).
The only spoiler warning it makes sense to offer: I’m going to discuss some of the differences between Everett’s novel and American Fiction, Cord Jefferson’s highly anticipated adaptation now in theaters. Doing so requires getting into plot details of both works, including their endings. I tried to step outside of my perspective and evaluate the film on its own merits, and to consider how someone who had not read the book might experience it. I ended up impressed with how Jefferson nimbly incorporates metafictional commentary on adapting novel to film. American Fiction is easily one of my favorite depictions of book-to-film adaptation since Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation delightfully mangled Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. But, as one character observes near the movie’s end, “Novels aren’t movies, and nuance doesn’t put asses in theater seats.”
Jeffrey Wright is captivating as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a professor and novelist who, like Everett, harbors deep skepticism about the truth-value of race as a concept. Ellison has authored novels on a variety of subjects and finds himself under pressure from critics, and from his agent Arthur (John Ortiz), to write books that are more legibly Black in their content. Monk is annoyed by the critical and commercial success of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, a novel by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae). He questions its literary value and believes it’s filled with offensive racist caricatures; he calls Golden out for being an Oberlin-educated intellectual trafficking in ghetto clichés. Much to Ellison’s chagrin, the book is a bestseller, a favorite of white critics, and is even embraced by his colleagues and friends. Disgusted with the success of the novel and his own inability to sell his work, Ellison decides to write a satirical novel titled My Pafology under a pseudonym. Though written as a farce to show the absurdity of racism in publishing, his novel unexpectedly gets picked up by a publisher, and Ellison is forced to decide if he should reveal himself as its author.
In the meantime, Monk is dealing with some family drama. He comes from people entrenched in that social stratum W. E. B. Du Bois identified as the “The Talented Tenth.” His grandfather, father, and both siblings, OB-GYN Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and plastic surgeon Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), are all medical doctors. As a writer and professor, Monk is the oddball and the brunt of their jokes. Their father committed suicide in the family’s Martha’s Vineyard beach house several years earlier, an incident that leads to some seriously dark humor. He’d been having affairs, at least one with a white woman, a source of some resentment from Monk (which he later exorcises in a scene writing the satirical novel at the center of the film). The family’s mother, played by the regal Leslie Uggams in a heartbreaking, poignant performance, is struggling with Alzheimer’s and needs care. That care gets complicated when Lisa unexpectedly dies, and Cliff leaves Monk holding all the responsibility, because he’s getting fleeced in his divorce and is more interested in sowing wild oats as a newly out gay man.
I’ve seen some mild criticism that the family drama is a distraction from the film’s racial satire, but the family story is essential for understanding why Monk makes the desperate decisions that he does when it comes to his unexpected windfall from My Pafology. The depiction of the family’s struggle with looking after their mother makes for some of the most touching scenes in the film, and they hit important points, including the gendered labor of parental care, where daughters are too often expected to carry the load. Moreover, these moments of interiority show that race really isn’t all that important to the Ellisons when they’re alone together and relate to one another as family members, not as Black people burdened with representing the race in public in front of prying white eyes, as they do in a galling scene showing them scattering Lisa’s ashes on the beach; a white male neighbor interrupts the moment to grill them about whether they have a permit to do so.
The first sound viewers hear as the film gets underway is a marker squeaking against a whiteboard and then Monk’s voice: “Okay, let’s begin. Who wants to start?” On the board he has written “The Artificial N*gger by Flannery O’Connor.” An argument ensues with a white student, who walks out in protest when Ellison keeps the troublesome word on the board. Right away, the film wades into the culture wars as Monk is “cancelled” for bringing confrontational material into the classroom. (I’m going to use “cancel” carelessly now like everyone else, since no one is ever required to define it, and we apply it to everything from mild criticism to outright execution.) In this case, it means Monk is given a “leave of absence” to allow the controversy to blow over. While there’s a way that Erasure could be manipulated as a culture wars screed against snowflake college students, Jefferson thankfully avoids that route. Beyond the offense of the word, O’Connor’s provocative title not only speaks to the film’s obsession with Black realness but also the way the novel as source material delves into larger philosophical issues of artistic authenticity and the very nature of reality itself.
Throughout the film, Jefferson distills information from Everett’s prose into visual representations, as when Monk is on the phone with Arthur, complaining about the racial expectations making it hard for his work to sell.
“I don’t even believe in race,” he says just as he steps to a sidewalk curb holding his arm out; a taxi passes him by only to pick up two white passengers. In the book, Everett introduces Monk’s social constructionist attitude towards race by stating from the jump:
I have dark brown skin, curly hair, a broad nose, some of my ancestors were slaves and I have been detained by pasty white policemen in New Hampshire, Arizona and Georgia, so the society in which I live tells me I am Black; that is my race.
Monk’s attitude about race is as much a feature of his education and class standing as his individual genius. The man is literally from a family full of doctors. This kind of “I don’t see race” perspective often comes from Black people who hold just enough wealth and privilege to be insulated from racism’s worst features. And yet, the Ellison family’s resources are limited enough that the children argue over how to manage the financial burden of taking care of their mother, itself a subtle commentary on the precarity of Black wealth, even among bourgie Negroes like the Ellisons.
My Pafology, Monk’s pseudonymous parody of racial stereotypes, is optioned for a film, even before the book is out—and the author tries to sabotage the project by insisting that the title is changed to Fuck. To the surprise of his agent, the change is approved.
He writes the book under the penname Stagg R. Leigh, and, frankly, I wonder if that reference even lands. Do Black Zoomers—or really any audience members—know anything about Staggolee (Stack Lee) as a mythological character? Even if they don’t know him by name, they’ve certainly seen him represented in the hypermasculine swagger of hip-hop (and it’s easy enough to look up information on the character’s various iterations). Of course, there’s no indication in American Fiction that My Pafology has anything to do with Richard Wright’s Native Son, whereas in Erasure, the novel-within-the novel is a direct parody of it; the character Van Go Jenkins is the Bigger Thomas figure, and the Daltons are recast as a wealthy Black family. There’s certainly no inside baseball in the movie about the critical debate between the novelist Ralph Ellison and critic Irving Howe over works by James Baldwin and Richard Wright and the political role of the Black artist. In fact, I don’t recall any substantial references to Ralph Ellison or Invisible Man at all (but it’s possible I missed an “easter egg”). This kind of content isn’t translatable to film. To me, that impossibility only reaffirms the relevance and value of the novel as a long textual form that allows for deeper intellectual exploration.
What we do have in American Fiction in place of all that literary history and critical bickering is an impressive depiction of the writing process, this strange ventriloquism of inventing fictional characters and putting words in their mouths. At night Monk sits at his desk writing My Pafology as its two characters, the film version of Van Go Jenkins (Okieriete Onaodowan) and his father, Willy the Wonker (played with fiery humor by the great Keith David), appear to him and play out their scene, occasionally interrupting it to ask Monk for their lines. This version of My Pafology is more melodramatic than comical, and it offers Monk a means of getting out aggression about both his father’s indiscretions and the fact that those indiscretions reaffirm certain stereotypes about Black men. Monk is supposedly beyond race, and beyond shame, but in the intimacy of his own room at night, we find that maybe he’s not as far above it all as he would hope.
A fan of the novel, I could spend time parsing all the differences between Erasure and American Fiction. Lisa dies of a heart attack instead of being shot by an anti-abortion fanatic, a development that perhaps would have been too heavy in this post-Dobbs era. In the book, the Ellisons live in Washington, DC (Jeffery Wright’s real hometown), but here, the elite enclaves of Boston serve as a more compact setting for their striver lifestyle, including the concentration of prestigious colleges and the proximity of Martha’s Vineyard with its history as a playground for the Black elite. The novel also allows for more detail about Lorraine, their long-time housekeeper wonderfully portrayed by Myra Lucretia Taylor, and plays up the class politics of Monk’s interactions with her. In the film version, she comes off as a mammy figure—her warm, full-bodied Southern black womanhood played against Mrs. Ellison’s cold, judgmental New England detachment. The film’s Monk is sharp, sarcastic, and funny, but in the book he’s also obnoxious, especially when it comes to Black women. That includes Monk’s new girlfriend, Coraline (as someone who grew up in “a ’90s kind of world,” it’s wonderful to see Living Single’s Erika Alexander in a meaningful supporting role). After they’ve been seeing each other for a while, Monk finds Coraline with a copy of Fuck and proceeds to grill her about the book. In Erasure, however, he finds her with a copy of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.
This is where Jefferson deserves great credit as a screenwriter, and where the film improves on its source material. Sintara Golden is a more complex character than Erasure’s Juanita Mae Jenkins, who is more cynical opportunist than serious writer. Sintara’s complexity opens up the possibility that Monk is misreading her book and its popularity. In fact, he admits that he hasn’t read it at all. At the end of the film, Monk and Sintara sit together on an awards committee; Fuck is one of the novels up for the honor. In one brilliant scene, they find themselves alone in a conference room and have it out over her book. Sintara exposes the misogyny and more than a little racism underlying Monk’s critique. He’s basically calling Black women stupid and gullible for liking her novel, which is, frankly, a real thing that happened with street fiction.
Readers and critics have speculated about who inspired the character of Juanita Mae Jenkins. It’s most likely a response to Sapphire’s Push (which got made into Lee Daniels’s Precious, which was definitely “trauma porn” in its purest form, to use a phrase Monk throws out in the film) as well as other street novelists like Zane and Sister Souljah, among others, who were at least guilty by association. When Monk talks about Black people’s “potential,” Sintara grabs the word and flips it back on him, revealing the condescending attitude toward Black people that undergirds his frustration with racial stereotypes. That is nuance that the film does capture. Everyone’s complaints about Black stereotypes don’t come from a good place, and some Black intellectuals, like Monk, just don’t want to be too closely associated with those other Black folks. It’s a catharsis when Sintara confronts him. On the committee, Monk and Golden wind up sharing a moment of solidarity; the two Black authors oppose Fuck as a winner. Their white colleagues vote for it anyway; after all, it’s a refreshing, authentic, and brave work of Black literature.
The film’s ending recreates that of the novel and is an earnest metafictional attempt to address the difficulties of making a sincere and satisfying movie ending. There’s a nod to Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (Jefferson has mentioned it in interviews as an inspiration) and the work that Black actors must do to play the roles that are available to them while trying to hold on to their dignity and agency.
Black people have to be careful what they wish for when it comes to representation in popular culture. Over a century ago W. E. B. Du Bois asked, “What are Negroes to do when they are continually painted at their worst and judged by the public as they are painted?” American Fiction is valuable as a representation of Black people that deconstructs the perils of representation. As a Percival Everett fan, my initial feeling after the first few minutes of the film was a delirious joy at seeing these characters living and breathing on screen. They really did it. They really made a movie out of this beloved book. This is an exciting time for us fans. We’ve been trying to tell y’all about how dope this man’s writing is. Now maybe more people will listen and read.