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Flicks With Nicki – American Fiction and Facts

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Flicks With Nicki – American Fiction and Facts

F_03452_RJeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison in writer/director Cord Jefferson’sAMERICAN FICTIONAn Orion Pictures ReleasePhoto credit: Claire Folger© 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

“American Fiction” tells the tale of Thelonius “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a professor trying to get his next book published. His latest work is a modern reimagining of Aeschylus. If you don’t know Aeschylus, he is the father of Greek tragedy. It’s not surprising that every publisher rejects Ellison’s work, and his ability to teach at his predominately white institution is strained. At the same time, another academic, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) rises to success with her novel “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.” Yup. That’s the name of her book. Ellison is enraged by the universal acceptance of a novel that should be distasteful to every reader.

Ellison’s professional and literary life is played for laughs. A white student storms out of his class because the use of the “N” word in a short story by Flannery O’Connor is intolerable to her. Sintara Golden reads an excerpt from her book using clichéd dialogue. Ellison’s editors are eager for something similarly rough, vulgar, and violent. Simply speaking, Black by the standard of the white gaze.

A forced sabbatical leads Ellison back to his family in Boston. In these moments, the comedy fades to the realities we endure regardless of race. His mother has Alzheimer’s disease. His sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) has been the primary caregiver despite her demanding career as a physician. His brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) is also a doctor but now grapples with the realization that he’s gay. Coraline (the ever-so-beautiful Erika Alexander) is a neighbor who has read and loved Ellison’s earlier works.

Ellison decides to draft a preposterous tale called “My Pafology,” which immediately becomes a hit. For Monk Ellison, all of this is a joke, but he needs the money and is forced to wear the mask of his alter ego Stagg R. Leigh: escaped-convict and thug life personified, but he orders French wine and then sprints away at the sound of sirens.

Adapted from Percival Everett’s novel “Erasure,” writer and director Cord Jefferson tells us a story that alternates between the ridiculous and real. “American Fiction” is funny, but the joke is so true that it hurts. At some point we see fiction. At another we see facts.

The white experience is deemed the universal experience. The beauty of “American Fiction” is that it shows the universality of Ellison’s experience juxtaposed against the fake world that he creates. Reality is boring and quietly shattering. There is a reason for his nickname and the part he plays in the minstrel show of his life.

Ellison may or may not find love, but Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor) the family’s housekeeper will. She is free from guise. She is not ashamed of her role in society or the family. She is the only one who is completely her true self in the entire story.

Cliff has been wearing a mask of heterosexuality, and yet his midlife crisis is played like a farce. We see pool boys in short shorts, drugs, and shallow sex. Shouldn’t those stereotypes also be shunned? As a viewer, I couldn’t tell if this was done carelessly or to make another point.

Who wears the mask?

Who lives, who dies, who tells our stories?

It is easy for a white writer to pitch and be published by telling the stories of people of color. I think of “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden, “Shōgun” by James Clavell, “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. There are countless others. I don’t begrudge them this privilege. Writing is hard. Creating stories takes perseverance. Writers of color face the challenge of writing and the challenge of fighting stereotypes.

We fight to tell our own stories in their own ways. We are told no. We are told to write what is expected of us, to add more angst, pain, and poverty. We are told our books won’t sell, and our stories aren’t valued. I wonder how many white writers have been told to make their stories whiter. My guess is none.

“American Fiction” shows us the truth of it all.

It’s not the first time Jeffrey Wright has brought me to tears with his acting. You need to see the movie to understand why he deserves the Oscar nomination. It was beautiful. If you can handle the grittiness of “Westworld,” check out his portrayal of Bernard Lowe in season one. I’m still recovering.

Sterling K. Brown also got an Oscar nomination. As we left the theater back in December, my husband said, “Sterling’s going to get an Oscar for that.” He was right. There were Oscar-caliber performances from everyone on the screen. Kudos to director Cord Jefferson for allowing the actors to be both wry and raw.

I fancy myself a writer, but the writing world is a mystery. I did not want to see “American Fiction.” I feared the story would too closely resemble my writing journey. It did. I have written about the racism I faced in the traditional publishing world. And more recently, I spoke about how I’ve come to terms with who I am as a writer. “American Fiction” captured a writer’s life and family relationships with startling accuracy.

Our stories are not solely about oppression and persecution, but also about taking care of our ailing mothers and healing the relationships with our siblings. Sometimes our lives are reflected in books and movies. In fiction and in fact. Grade A-

Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a writer, story consultant, and working mom.

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