Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
TORONTO, Canada—Jeffrey Wright can do it all, and he does in American Fiction, playing an author and college professor in crisis who returns home and, in a rash attempt to channel his anger and frustration, winds up perpetrating an absurdist fraud. Infusing his protagonist with a messy blend of fury, exasperation, fear, regret, bitterness and loneliness, Wright is at once deeply touching and extremely funny, handling his role’s complex array of combative and paradoxical emotions and impulses with the deftness of an artist at the absolute top of his game. If he’s ever been better, it’s difficult to remember when, and thrillingly, his latest is a triumphant satire about race, exploitation, family and identity that’s as rich and captivating as his tour-de-force.
A standout at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, American Fiction is an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, and an immensely auspicious feature debut for its veteran TV writer/director Cord Jefferson, whose film successfully balances the serious and the ridiculous. That’s apparent from the get-go, when Los Angeles-based Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Wright) snaps at a white female student for expressing her discomfort with the title of Flannery O’Conner’s The Artificial Nigger (“I got over it, I’m pretty sure you can too”).
This is another in an apparent series of classroom infractions, and when coupled with the fact that Monk hasn’t penned a new novel in years, it earns him an indefinite leave of absence. With a book convention on the horizon, he reluctantly relocates back to his native Boston, where he’s forced to reconnect with his clan—namely, his women’s health clinic physician sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and his mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams), who’s showing early signs of the Alzheimer’s disease that will soon decimate her.