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When Fiction Is Stranger Than Truth: American Fiction Is a Perfect Film

Jeffrey Wright stars in the laugh-out-loud/break-your-heart comedy American Fiction — one of the top films of 2023. (Courtesy photo)

Alexandria, VA – The eminently quotable Mark Twain is credited with saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” It’s because, as he explains, fiction is obliged to stick to the possibilities, and truth is not. In Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut masterpiece, American Fiction, comedy is the vehicle delivering strangely possible and vexingly improbable revelations. Blackishness is extolled and maligned in living color, told as an erstwhile Shakespearean comedy of errors cum tragedy. It makes you laugh loudly, only to pivot suddenly to break your heart.

It’s plaintively real. And convincingly true. If all the world’s a stage, and the people merely players, then this dynamic is at the heart of American Fiction. The compelling screenplay, eloquently crafted by Cord Jefferson and certain to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay  ̶  and win it at a few award occasions, partnered with the stellar performances rendered by the A-list cast  ̶  elevate this film to the best picture of the year.

I’ve viewed American Fiction twice. The first was in October at the 11th annual Middleburg Film Festival, where William and Mary grad Cord Jefferson won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, always an Oscar predictor. He was also honored with the Special Achievement in Filmmaking Award. Except for last year’s Devotion, all the Middleburg Film Festival Audience Award-honored films have received multiple Oscar nominations and wins, with Spotlight (2015) and Greenlight (2018) achieving Best Picture.

In December, I attended a second screening of American Fiction at the National Museum of African History and Culture with the film’s star, DC native Jeffrey Wright. He was also honored as a hometown hero with a proclamation from Mayor Muriel Bowser. She decreed his birthday, December 7, Jeffrey Wright Day in DC. Ever the consummate master of the supporting role, what formerly was considered character acting, this is a first starring comedic role for the Tony, Emmy, and Golden Globe-winning actor.

Aaron Bryant, Curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, interviews DC native Jeffrey Wright, star of American Fiction. The museum held a special screening in December, where the actor was honored with a proclamation declaring the hometown hero’s birthday, December 7, Jeffrey Wright Day. (Photo Scott MacConomy)

Wright has been a prolific performer with countless acting credits. He’s best known for The Hunger Games series, West World, Angels in America, both on stage and in the HBO adaption, the Bond and Batman franchises, almost every Wes Anderson film, and was the narrator for the feature-length documentary Moynihan, in which you can see this film aficionado. He’ll also be appearing in the second season of HBO’s The Last of Us. From portraying Colin Powell in W to the artist Jean Michel Basquiat, Wright proves his chops. He’s the veritable actor’s actor.

Based on the main character in the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett, Wright’s portrayal of the pathologically anguished author-professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison has my vote for Best Actor in the Best Film boasting the Best Director who also wrote the Best Screenplay Adaptation for the Best Ensemble Cast of any film in the past year. Wright’s genius lies in his understated intelligence and disarming humor that bely his commitment to perfection in his craft. He never upstages, allowing his performance to evolve in concert and complement his co-stars.

The casting is superb: Sterling K. Brown, Tracey Ellis Ross, John Ortiz, Issa Rae, Erika Alexander, and the legendary Leslie Uggams, who deserves a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of Agnes Ellison, Monk’s dementia-challenged mother. Wright and Jefferson praised her work ethic and true grit, shooting tirelessly at night in the cold water and cruel wind of the Scituate shoreline. If there were Oscars for Best Casting Director, Emmy-winning Jennifer Euston would win.

Director/Screenwriter of American Fiction Cord Jefferson receiving the Special Achievement in Filmmaking Award at the 11th Annual Middleburg Film Festival from Founder and Board Chair Sheila Johnson. (Photo Scott MacConomy)

The film challenges us to view the film color-blind. The dynamics of family foils amid triumphs and downfalls intersecting in opposition to and in concert with occupational hurdles or personal pathos is relatable to everyone.

American Fiction is a perfect film in every way. Without preaching or proselytizing, the storyline and characterizations remind us of one truth: the human narrative is a collective story within each of us. Sometimes it’s a comedy. But inevitably, it succumbs to a tragedy of one kind or another. There’s not always a solution in life. Or a rewrite. But we keep on trying somehow. What choice is there? Except to be kind.

American Fiction is rated R for language and adult themes. It’s currently playing at the AMC Hoffman Center 22 and area theaters but is not yet streaming. If you only see one movie this year, make it American Fiction.

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Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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