On temporary leave from his university, Monk travels to Boston for a book festival, but finds that while his own reading is poorly attended, crowds are flocking to see another writer: Sintara Golden (a delightful Issa Rae), whose pandering, stereotype-filled new novel We’s Lives in Da Ghetto is a runaway hit. Is this really what the world wants from him then, he wonders, yet another tale of poverty and violence?
It’s at this point that the film, in some senses, splits into two. One half of it is about Monk’s eccentric, dysfunctional family—his witty sister (a magnetic Tracee Ellis Ross, criminally underused here), raucous brother (a barnstorming Sterling K. Brown), and ailing mother (Leslie Uggams)—whom he then visits in Boston. The moment we arrive at their grand old house and meet their lovable housekeeper (Myra Lucretia Taylor), it’s clear that Monk had a privileged upbringing. He’s someone who says he doesn’t “even really believe in race,” insulated as he is from some of the harsher realities of being Black in America. There’s some intellectual snobbery in his disdain for Sintara Golden’s work, though he’s not wrong to criticize its reduction of the African American experience. Still, Monk doesn’t linger on this—that is, until his mother’s condition worsens and he finds himself in need of more money to pay for her care, but still unable to sell his book.
Which brings us to the other half of the film: in a fit of frustration, Monk writes My Pafology, a crude tale of gun-toting hustlers, drug dealing, and absent fathers, under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, and then sends it to his agent. His hope is to hold up a mirror to the hypocrisy of a publishing industry that peddles narratives about Black pain to white audiences, and squeezes authors of color into increasingly smaller boxes, dictating what they’re able to write. In the end, though, the joke backfires: the book sells, and becomes the most successful thing Monk has ever published.
Both halves of American Fiction are necessary (not to mention incredibly funny)—the family saga is the heart, and the satire the head—but it’s the latter, in particular, that had me in stitches. Monk’s lie quickly spins out of control, birthing a million-dollar movie deal, primetime interviews, and snagging the book a spot on the shortlist for a prestigious literary award, one which, ironically, Monk is on the judging panel for. From this point onward, the film’s pleasures are too numerous to recount, from the incredible attention to detail throughout (one of the white publishers who gushes over My Pafology has a poster of Ruth Bader Ginsburg wearing boxing gloves in her office) to a delicious cameo from Adam Brody as a smarmy Hollywood producer, and the scene where Monk arrives at his agent’s office in a T-shirt because he, a man who ordinarily always wears a shirt, was asked to dress “street.”