Everyone says they want diversity. Exactly what this means is up for interpretation. While business says it means trying to hire minorities, and universities say they want economic diversity, the decision–makers and the incentives they operate under are the same as they’ve always been, leading us to little noticeable change.
Nowhere is the claimed value of representation higher than in the two ailing sectors of publishing and movies. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in art about previously unrepresented groups. American Fiction is a movie about the quality of that representation: In a world where Black films and books are finally produced, who produces them and for whom? Must stories with Black characters be about race? And is it Black representation when Black artists discuss topics besides the Black experience?
This all may sound like a somewhat dreary sociological discussion, but American Fiction is a laugh–out–loud satire. Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, the film follows novelist Theolonius Monk, played by the always incredible Jeffery Wright, who keeps getting his manuscripts rejected because they’re “not Black enough.” As a joke, Monk sends in My Pafology, featuring racism, gangsters, and over–the–top slang. Instead of rejecting it again, publishers and then the (mostly white) world fall over themselves praising the book’s brilliance and authenticity to the shock of Monk as the book keeps reaching higher success.
This covers half of the story. The other half, almost fully disconnected, is a drama about Monk’s family and his relationship with others following a personal tragedy. Director Cord Jefferson might have noticed a paradox within American Fiction: By making a movie calling out the obsession with producing movies with racism, he was implicitly engaging in the same practice. In a Q&A after the screening during the Philadelphia Film Festival, he discussed how to address this issue: “Racism says nothing about Black people, it only tells us about white society. We need to understand the lives of people on their own terms.” This is the function of the family drama, to show us that it is possible to have stories about Black characters and not about their Blackness. This plotline thematically holds the movie together. While the satire raises all the questions, the drama holds the answers.
This structure prevents the film from ever feeling too heavy–handed. In the first scene, a white student storms out of Monk’s classroom after being triggered by the use of the N–word in literature. It almost feels like a setup for a new Daily Wire original about wokeness and social justice warriors. However, while the film continues to employ archetypes such as the patronizing white liberals as publishers, the strident woke author played by Issa Rae, and even Monk himself acting as the crotchety judgmental English professor, these stereotypes are played against each other, with each side having a chance to be leveled down to size. All the real characters are in the other half of the film. However, there’s one complicating issue here: The stereotypes are much more entertaining.
This first half of the movie is much better and will be the main reason most people enjoy it, which gets to the most interesting question implicitly raised by American Fiction: What if bad representation is just more popular?
In the first act, the publishers are portrayed as slightly racist, patronizing idiots for believing that My Pafology is good and not offensive trash. However, in the second act, when the book is released, it’s a number one bestseller. That means the publishers were right, and their idiocy was profitable. So while we argue about the quality of representation, they will just keep doing their jobs and what gets made will be what always has: that which makes money.
When I asked Cord Jefferson this question, he responded that films like Black Panther demonstrate that they can have positive representation while also being successful. Hopefully, then, American Fiction can thrive and prove in dollars—the language Hollywood understands best—that people want nuanced dramas and satires and that representation that is positive is also favorable for their bottom line. If not, our opinion on its message may no longer matter at all.