It’s not every year, or possibly any year, that ReelGood reviews all the Academy Award nominees for best picture. Even when there were only five nominees instead of the current ten, that would have been somewhat unlikely – and especially unlikely given that ReelGood didn’t exist then.

Well, 2023 would be such a year – except we are currently one short.

That’s right, by luck and by chance, so far we have reviewed Anatomy of a Fall, Barbie, The Holdovers, Killers of the Flower Moon, Maestro, current betting favourite Oppenheimer, Past Lives, Poor Things and The Zone of Interest. And if you have a keen eye, or even a not-so-keen eye, you’ll note each of those reviews has been linked in the previous sentence, if you want to read them.

So now, in preparation for the Oscars on Monday, it’s time to review the tenth and final 2023 nominee, not characterised as such by any other method than the order in which we’ve gotten to it. Since it has only recently begun streaming on Amazon Prime, it also happens to make for a review contemporary to its release, just like the nine others that came before it.

Without further ado …

Just as the main character of American Fiction is split into two personalities, so is the movie itself. One is the story of a son and brother who must face up to his responsibilities in the wake of a family tragedy and the Alzheimer’s diagnosis of his mother. The other is the story of a frustrated academic who turns to literary pandering to make a mockery of popular fiction and its views on racial authenticity, and ends up writing the biggest hit of his career. One is a drama and the other is a satire. Neither half speaks to the other intuitively, but they do both prevent the other from becoming all it could be.


Cord Jefferson’s debut as a feature film writer and director focuses on Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a Los Angeles professor who specialises in the literature of the American south, but whose own work as a writer is purposely divorced from those associations and from his own race. When he sees his novels in a local bookstore filed under African-American Studies, he takes the whole armload and tries to wedge them into an available space in Fiction. The way the world has put him into a box leads to regular conflicts with his students, and one particular conflagration forces the university to place him on involuntary administrative leave.

The timing is fortuitous in one sense, as Monk is already headed to Boston for a literature conference. His ability to stay there long term also means reconnecting with his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and his mother (Leslie Uggams), something he is hesitant to do as their family has been strained by the past death of a wayward father and by the outing and divorce of Monk’s brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), whose wife caught him in bed with a man. A visit that would have just been awkward becomes far more serious following a sudden tragedy and the realisation that Monk’s mother can no longer remember that her daughter is divorced.

Meanwhile, Monk is stewing under the popular success of a fellow Black writer, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), who has written a critically embraced novel called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, which Monk considers the most cynical form of pandering to Black stereotypes. With his own books generally rejected as too hifalutin, Monk gets the idea to write his own We’s Lives in Da Ghetto and calls it My Pafology, adopting the pen name Stagg R. Leigh and the persona of a dangerous convict on the run from the law.

Fans of sharp social and media satire will recognise a great idea brewing in American Fiction, one that promises to discomfit in equal measure to the laughter it prompts. Jefferson takes on different aspects of a perspective on art produced by people of colour, lambasting both the white critics and readers who try to absolve themselves of guilt by praising inferior work, and the Black artists who would knowingly opt into that system and benefit from it. The Issa Rae character is particularly interesting here, as she is both the purveyor of something she must have known was culturally myopic at best, and someone who speaks thoughtfully and critically in her private conversations off camera.


Some of the subtlety is lost, though, in many of the others who occupy the margins of this theme, such as the fellow authors who sit on a panel for a literary prize with Monk and Sintara, and the publishers who fall over backwards wanting to publish My Pafology and to speak to Stagg R. Leigh in a manner he would consider sufficiently street. Jefferson has all the exaggerated characterisations that would belong in a movie with an overall zanier tone, but not the zanier tone. Because he has established a baseline of realism with the Alzheimer’s plot, he’s more or less trying to keep the other story on the same even keel, meaning he hasn’t correctly calibrated the scope of the other characters’ microaggressions. Characters can be basic in their ineptitude in matters involving race, but only if you establish that this is the type of funhouse mirror you are trying to present.

The trouble with the satire is that Jefferson actually seems a lot more interested in the Alzheimer’s story, and that’s where American Fiction is at its best. The Oscar-nominated Wright shines more in these subtle moments where his past distance as a son and brother is brought into full relief, than he does pretending to be Stagg R. Leigh, something he does with a sort of reluctance that even seems to make the actor uncomfortable. (And maybe that’s the point.) As he works out past conflicts with his sister and the also-nominated Brown, it sometimes feels like a forgotten third element that his mother has recently been diagnosed with dementia. That’s just how life is sometimes, that everything comes at you at once, and these passages underscore just how much is on Monk’s plate. (In a rather unconvincing development that gets the short shrift, Monk is also in a new relationship with his neighbour, played by Erika Alexander.)


As American Fiction moves toward its conclusion, it reveals an additional layer of narrative complexity that offers a possible explanation for some of its more standard plot points. It may be too little, too late at that point for American Fiction to become as successful a film as its best picture nomination would suggest. In its most inspired moments, though, it still rises to the level of a provoking text leavened by uncomfortable laughter. The movie’s best moment may be the one where Monk starts out to write My Pafology, and a scene between a gangbanger and his drunk father materialises in the very office where Monk is at his typewriter. As he has a dialogue with these characters to discover what they would say and do as the worst stereotypical versions of themselves, it gives a glimpse of both the narrative playfulness and the devastating insight that could have been present throughout.


American Fiction is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

7 / 10