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Is American Fiction enough of a satire to make a valid, stingy critique on the African-American perception or is the film mere entertainment in search of a point to make? It’s closer to the latter.

They say that drama is easy but comedy is hard, yet I’d argue that the most difficult genre to get absolutely right is satire, which should straddle the thin line between believable and over the top. American Fiction makes a valiant effort in its first hour but gradually the bite and the purpose get lost, so the film ends up as a missed chance to say something meaningful.

But let’s start with that promising first hour, which sees high-minded novelist Jeffrey Wright struggling to cope with the populist appeal of a ‘raw, true, black’ novel of a young writer. When he writes his own novel in the same style, under a pseudonym, intended to hold up a mirror to publishers, he is aghast they cannot see past the satire and is against his will swept up in a publishing process he cannot stop.

Part of why American Fiction’s first hour works so well is not only the impressively taut screenplay from writer-director Cord Jefferson. The cast is wonderful as well, with a special shoutout to Tracee Ellis Ross – in a small but pivotal role – and Jeffrey Wright, who here has finally found a fitting lead role to show off his considerable talent, though I was less impressed by the one-note gay cliché performance of Sterling K. Brown, like Wright also Oscar-nominated this season.

It is hard to pinpoint where and when American Fiction started to lose my interest, but in its second hour it does become apparent that the film’s message lacks the clarity to produce a final act epiphany. The makers themselves seem to be aware of this, as evidenced by a closing ten minutes that purposely revolve around the idea of ambiguity and lack of closure, where the satire gets lost in the shuffle.

So while I get why some people are falling head over heels for American Fiction, even they should be asking themselves: do I love the concept of the movie or the movie itself?

release: 2023

director: Cord Jefferson

starring: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae


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