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'American Fiction' and the Academy

My thoughts on this great movie and the culture surrounding the Oscars today (spoilers)

By Matty LongPublished 3 months ago 6 min read
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When I recently watched ‘American Fiction,’ I posted on X that I thought writer-director Cord Jefferson thoroughly deserved his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, being a witty, well-acted, and biting satire. I also opined, however, that I’m not sure how its title character, Monk Ellison (a black writer, like Jefferson), would feel if he won the award for his own work.

This is because its essential premise of ‘American Fiction’ (based on ‘Erasure’ by Percival Everett) is that Monk (Jeffrey Wright) is a respected, decent writer but does not have much success because his novels aren’t, as his publisher puts it “black enough.” The plot (hilariously thanks to the performances and Jefferson’s script) then follows as Monk writes a ridiculously over-the-top book about life in the ghetto, pandering to every stereotype going in the manner of the kind of “black literature” that (mainly white, middle class) audiences lap up. “Trauma porn” as Monk puts it.

The humour comes from the fact that his deliberate attempt at satire completely backfires and his book becomes a bestseller, even being adapted into a movie, and we follow Monk as he attempts to create a persona completely contradictory to his true self in an effort to give the audience what they want, including a hilarious scene where he meets with a very typical Hollywood movie producer (Adam Brody).

Through this story-within-a-story narrative, the film obviously mocks the white middle-class liberals who indulge in the “trauma porn” that its central character so derides. However, this is interwoven with a personal story. The only reason, for instance, that Monk indulges the novel’s success, even though it goes against all his principles, is that his mother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and he needs money to pay for her care. This is alongside further family tragedy with the sudden death of his sister, his strained relationship with his brother (who is going through his own journey as a gay man coming out later in life), and his difficulty holding down a relationship without letting his passionate opinions get in the way of everything.

Some critics seemed to think that they didn’t like the way the serious side and the comedy side of the movie were interwoven, but I would argue that this vastly improved the story. Now, I won’t speak for these (again, mostly white, middle-class) critics, but it’s almost as if middle class liberals can’t simultaneously appreciate a person of colour satirising their beliefs, but still don’t want to see the very true, human side of that person? Such criticism only adds to the message of the film being true. Monk is a person, he’s not a concept, a victim, or most importantly, a stereotype.

This is demonstrated brilliantly in one scene where Monk, and a fellow black author, as part of a judging panel, decide that Monk’s book should not be selected as the winner, only for the remaining, all-white, judges, to disagree, with their reasoning being “we just really need to listen to black voices right now.”

The final act of the movie has Monk selling a different story to the film producer – the story of the movie itself – but when his realistic ending (Monk comes clean that he made up the persona and the book was a satire) is deemed unacceptable, the only ending the movie producer accepts is one where Monk is shot by the police. And so the stereotype continues.

It is, as I say, a brilliantly-made movie, and I suppose I’ve explained my initial reference to the Academy Award, as Monk would obviously despair if the movie he ends up selling in the end won any awards. But the real Academy surely understood the joke though? That the film is essentially mocking people just like them and their core audience – the liberal elite - with their enjoyment of African-American fiction as “trauma porn.”

I’d like to think so, and I’m interested into what it says about the Academy, the Oscars as a ceremony, and the people who attend them. Although we of course never know what they really think, I do think the Academy cares about diversity in creativity, and probably have made an effort to address issues that were rightly brought up in recent years with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that began in 2015, which followed much campaigning by people of colour to address a lack of diversity in major award categories.

Two years after that, though, in 2017, was the famous Oscars cock-up, where Warren Beatty announced ‘La La Land,’ as the best picture, only to realise – after the winners had already began their speeches - that he had been given the wrong envelope and ‘Moonlight’ was the actual winner.

The debacle followed a highly-political ceremony, where many white, privileged and very rich people – I won’t name names – had made very political statements, in what I would probably honestly describe as a “white saviour” manner, before collecting their $2K gift bags.

Now, maybe that’s cynical of me, and I don’t think being accused of being a “white saviour” is a reason for someone not to speak out about injustice, but what I found ironic is that ‘La La Land,’ that year's hot tipped winner, was a film from a white perspective in the jazz scene, with a lot of mansplaining, and a fairly clean cut script. Yet everyone at the Academy was all about ‘La La Land.’ For the record, I hadn’t seen ‘La La Land’ at the time and I have since watched and enjoyed it, but I think my point still stands.

The real winner, ‘Moonlight,’ about the life of a gay black man, was left a little in the shadow of ‘La La Land.’ There was a general sort of "oh" feeling, I found. As someone on Facebook humorously put it, 'La La Land won the popular vote, but Moonlight won the electoral college.' As if the liberal elite are happy to embrace diversity, but only on a surface level.

I think the Academy got the decision right that year, as ‘Moonlight’ is a brilliantly-told, real story from a black director, Barry Jenkins, and based on a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. But the attendees of the Oscars that year just didn’t seem to really agree. Although 'Moonlight' is harrowing in so many ways, I think they found it easier to get behind ’12 years a slave’ a few years earlier, as it better fitted the traditional victim “trauma-porn” narrative with which they are familiar (again, not a comment on the movie, ’12 years a slave’ was one of my favourites of the 2010s and deserved to win).

The envelope confusion, it eventually turned out, was because Beatty had been handed the Best Actress card – which read ‘Emma Stone – La La Land.’ Stone herself won a second Oscar at this year’s ceremony, for ‘Poor Things,’ and was reportedly ‘shocked.’ Many of the liberal elite stated that she had robbed the award from a member of another marginalised group, Native American actress Lily Gladstone (for her performance in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’).

I did catch that movie and I thought Gladstone was brilliant. I just think maybe it’s a bit patronising to phrase it as if she needs a white actress to act as her “saviour” and stand aside in order for her to win. She was nominated on her own merit, not to fit a diversity quota.

I haven’t seen ‘Poor Things,’ and probably won’t because it doesn’t sound like my thing, so I can’t say for sure whether I thought Stone deserved the Oscar, but I can say for sure that the person of colour who didn’t win it, Lily Gladstone, is perfectly capable of winning one in the future. I like to think the Academy might understand that now, even if the rest of the liberal elite didn’t get the memo.

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About the Creator

Matty Long

Jack of all trades, master of watching movies. Also particularly fond of pizza, country music, watching football, travelling, and tea.

X: @eardstapa_

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Comments (3)

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  • Esala Gunathilake14 days ago

    Nicely done it.

  • As a white liberal, I'm afraid to say much of anything. But I will say that "12 Years a Slave", "Moonlight", & "Killers of the Flower Moon" were all extraordinary movies. I have not seen either "American Fiction" or "Poor Things" but would like to see both. Your review here only confirms that desire for me--though it is good to know that it's supposed to be satire as I can be pretty dense, lol. Nicely analyzed, Matty.

  • ROCK 3 months ago

    Humbling review; I have not seen any of the above. I did see the SAG awards and was temporarily glowing from more people of color receiving more noteriety. Barba Streisand winning the lifetime achievement award made me wonder if there was hope on a larger scale for recogniton of Black, Hispanic and Asian writers, actors and overall Hollywood should-be's. I do want to see Moonlight if it pops up in my area of Sweden. I like your perspective. Well procured, Matty!

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