Don’t miss the thought-provoking ‘American Fiction’


“American Fiction,” one of this year’s 96th Academy Award nominees, is a comedy-drama that seamlessly veers from one genre to the other. The film opens this weekend at the M.V. Film Center, Friday, Feb. 16. Actually, it brilliantly combines the two genres so they support one another in unveiling a compelling and profoundly thought-provoking story about the disillusioned literary author, Thelonious (“Monk”) Ellison, who writes a “Black” book under a pen name to thumb his nose at the publishing world and literary establishment that has unceremoniously rejected him. Incidentally, this screening at the Film Center completes the showing of all Best Picture Oscar nominees.

Expertly written, directed, and acted, “American Fiction,” while often amusing, is engrossingly complex both in its plot and characters. While Monk’s book might be a stereotype, the film certainly is not. Yes, there is plenty of humor as Monk’s book becomes a runaway bestseller despite his efforts to stop the trajectory that ends up supporting the “Black” book genre he so disdains. Monk says early on that what they want is a “Black” book with a cop killing a teenager, or a single mom in Dorchester raising five kids. Yet, he insists, “I don’t really even believe in race.” To which his agent responds, “The problem is, everyone else does.”

When the book is first snatched up, Monk disbelievingly exclaims, “The blackest thing about it is the ink.” He goes to great lengths to stop its skyrocketing fame. On a phone call with his publishers, who are over the top at finding the next hot novel, Monk demands that the title be changed from “My Pafology” to a common expletive, “F___!” to kill the deal. Instead they cave, believing the new in-your-face title will give the book the aura of even more grit and daring. As it garners increasing acclaim, Monk builds a whole persona behind his pen name as an ex-convict on the run and, thus, in need of anonymity. As keeping up this fallacy becomes ever more complicated, Monk says, “The dumber I behave, the richer I get.” Yet, while amusing, the storyline continuously teases out issues around race, white expectations about Black culture, as well as the commercially crass publishing world and the highbrow literary establishment.

“American Fiction” is equally about the complexities of family and loved ones. Family crises and old resentments surface throughout. Monk’s relationships with his siblings, mother, dead father, and girlfriend are not just interwoven into the plot but central to carrying it along, infusing subtlety to his need to give in to the goodies that come with writing a wildly successful bestseller. The film doesn’t hit one wrong note with these key characters. They are all flawed — damaged in some way, but they are written and acted so keenly that we care about each one. Monk’s brother, at one point, says, “This family will break your heart.” The taciturn Monk is, naturally, the most complex. His girlfriend poignantly confronts him when he is being particularly obnoxious and self-righteous. “Maybe one day you’ll learn that not being able to relate to other people isn’t a badge of honor,” she tells him. And while Monk does evolve, there is no Hollywood ending of total transformation.

And speaking of endings, this one will surely get you. To say more would spoil what is a must-see movie. “American Fiction,” which was adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” was named one of the top 10 films of 2023 by the American Film Institute, and received five nominations for the 96th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. It also received two nominations for the 81st Golden Globe Awards, and won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 29th Critics’ Choice Awards.

There are so many excellent nominated films this year, and “American Fiction” well deserves to be one of the top contenders.

“American Fiction” is playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. For schedule and tickets, see