American Fiction: Trying to pull money together to care for his mother (Leslie Uggams), writer Monk (Jeffrey Wright) pens a stereotypical Black novel critiquing industry wants, leading to unwanted acclaim.

Release Date - 2nd February, Cert - 15, Run-time - 1 hour 52 minutes, Director - Cord Jefferson

The sharpness of American Fiction’s satire and critique comes through best when juxtaposed with the more naturalistic drama at hand. Writer Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) hasn’t had any attention directed towards his work in years. He views the industry’s demands for stereotypical depictions of Black life - the kind which give white audiences the feeling that they’re helping by calling out for change in response to such “essential” stories. In response, when needing to pull together money to care for his mother (Leslie Uggams), whose mind is deteriorating due to Alzheimers, he pens such a novel under the name Stagg R. Leigh.

To Monk’s contempt the novel immediately takes off, but can he get away with portraying his own character in meetings? The most effective comedy in this layered satire isn’t in the more upfront elements, but the subtle background details. These points gently work in the background of the more dramatic scenes involving the Ellison family as they deal with tragedy and their own lives and relationships. A strand which particularly stops the film from falling into the trappings it’s trying to point at.

Wright’s brilliant central performance manages to capture the subtleties of the love within the family, and the bumps along the way, and he’s backed up by a supporting cast who truly get across the quiet emotion. Sterling K. Brown has thankfully received awards attention, including an Oscar nomination, for his role as brother Clifford, bringing in the biggest emotion in two scenes with long-time family friend and house maid Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor). Monk’s career may not always drip into these scenes, largely it seems intentionally so, allowing these scenes to unfold more naturally.

Yet, while the points may initially feel separate as they begin to develop the central character’s reluctant not-quite-alter-ego brings a complex poignancy to a number of key moments. While the two main threads come together much earlier American Fiction waits until its final stages to truly reveal how clever it is. Almost unconciously during brilliantly written discussions between Wright and Issa Rae’s bestselling author Sintara Golden. Effectively capturing the film’s themes, with counters to create further thought and interest; backing up the points made while also working on their own.

This is a complex, layered and well-executed comedy-drama which observes its characters against the backdrop of the satire they witness and create. Satire which brings about plenty of laughs with a smart spark and strong sense of awareness. Helping to push along, and contrast, with the drama running alongside, and eventually with, it. There’s a lot to like about American Fiction, particularly in the ways that it reveals itself and deals with its points and ideas. It may even be worth a re-watch to see what else comes through, it would be for the brilliantly subtle performances alone.

Jamie Skinner, four stars ****