Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” is a cagey, cerebral dramedy about a joke that backfires on its author, a stone-faced literature professor named Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) who becomes a pseudonymous success writing a potboiler he loathes. Tweedy, stubborn and aloof, Ellison, who goes by Monk, specializes in academic reworkings of Ancient Greek plays, i.e. books no one reads.
He’s also Black, which gets his books misfiled under “African American fiction” instead of “Mythology” and emboldens editors to insist he urbanize his Aeschylus. The literary world wants another Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) — a pandering sellout, he believes. Early on, Monk wanders into a reading by Sintara of her new best seller, “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.” Cut to a slow horror zoom into his face, eyebrows crinkled upward as if in a prayer for deliverance. Wright, a master of stillness, barely twitches. But you sense his furious inward scream.
And so in his childhood home, an upper-class manor with decorative tassels on the staircase and lacrosse sticks leaning against the walls, Monk pounds out “My Pafology,” a poisonous cocktail of every impoverished Black cliché. “It’s got deadbeat dads, rappers, crack,” he cackles to his agent (John Ortiz), ordering him to send it to publishers as the debut novel from a felon named Stagg R. Leigh. Monk thinks he’s throwing a drink in their faces. This is the swill you want from Black authors?
Oops. It is.
The whip-smart screenplay updates and expands Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, “Erasure.” (Everett has also written his own take on Medea.) Jefferson, a first-time filmmaker whose TV writing credits include “Watchmen” and “The Good Place,” builds out the meta implications of a Hollywood producer (Adam Brody) who sees “My Pafology” as an awards contender (as this movie is, deservedly), and slicks a nouveau-woke polish on readers who think they can solve racism by hailing Monk’s pablum as raw and real. One nasally marketer, played by Michael Cyril Creighton, pitches rushing the book’s publication for Juneteenth. “White people will be feeling — let’s be honest — a little conscience stricken,” he says with calculation.
Yet, Jefferson — like Monk himself and Everett before them — is clued into the big catch: It’s impossible to write about not wanting to write about race without, bah, writing about race. He directs his comic scenes about Stagg R. Leigh’s snowballing career with bite and snap. They look good in the trailer — in fact, those comic scenes are the only scenes in the trailer.
But to make good on his movie’s message, Jefferson is determined to give space to the moments of Monk’s life that don’t hinge on race at all. Can Monk convince his mother (Leslie Uggams) that she needs round-the-clock medical care? Can he drop his guard and connect with his brother (Sterling K. Brown) and sister (Tracee Ellis Ross), and perhaps even a winsome public defender (Erika Alexander)? And must he sell the beach house?
Jefferson puts his heart into the moments that even his movie’s own marketing leaves out. Satire is just a wraparound gimmick for a marvelously acted, naturalistic drama about a prickly, privileged Black man and his family, set to Laura Karpman’s tender piano-forward score. The film is radical only in the fact that we haven’t seen many like it, a point Jefferson hammers home in a montage of real movies — “New Jack City,” “Precious,” “Antebellum” — cut to promote a cable channel’s Black Stories Month, a hit parade of gunfire, teen pregnancy and enslavement.
There’s a tonal tension in fusing these two movies together, in stitching Monk’s sardonic prank to his soulful reality. The script feels like flashy gold buttons on a hand-knit cardigan. Afterward, you pull at the loose threads: Doesn’t any part of Monk like being a millionaire? (Not that we see.) Does Jefferson actually buy his own ending? (Not likely.)
But Jefferson makes the smartest possible moves in a knotty game of chess, like when he conjures up the two fictional leads of “My Pafology,” Van Go Jenkins (Okieriete Onaodowan) and Willy the Wonker (Keith David), to sip paper-bagged bottles of booze and squint suspiciously at the lines their creator has given them to say. The characters get such a laugh that you figure they’ll keep coming back, but Jefferson limits them to just one scene. No more screen time for stereotypes. Instead, he pans across photos on a wall in the Ellison family’s home, as if to say: Look at all these other human stories that remain to be told.
Rated R for sexual references, fantasy violence and language. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. In theaters.