“This is important. This is cool. This is funny. And I want to be there.”
It feels like Jeffrey Wright is in everything these days. His versatility has taken him from character acting in the likes of rThe French Dispatch and Westworld to his recent Oscar-nominated turn in the dark comedy American Fiction.
What’s American Fiction about? Summary of this Best Picture-nominated feature:
In American Fiction, Jeffrey Wright plays a jaded writer who finally finds success by jokingly writing a “Black” book — aka a book that caters to the white liberal imagintion. Wright’s character, Thelonious Ellison — or “Monk” — wrestles with the professional consequences of his newfound success while grappling with grief and shifting personal dynamics.
When Jeffrey Wright accepted the Montecito Award at the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Thursday, February 15th, he said of American Fiction:
“For me, the heart is the family. That’s what drew me in. That’s what plucked all of my emotional and psychological strings.”
“It’s a family that’s recognizable,” Wright continued. “It’s a family that’s as crazy as everyone's family is.”
Popdust caught up with Jeffrey Wright on the Red Carpet of the Santa Barbara Film Festival to chat about creating a character like Monk alongside such a stellar cast:
POPDUST: How do you play such an introspective character while also playing alongside such a powerful cast:
We do it together. If I weren't part of an ensemble, it'd be a one-man show. That'd be a very different film. So it's just the nature of the work. Yeah, we do this stuff together,
POPDUST: How do you build that chemistry?
You build it with your fellow actors. What Cord Jefferson did with this film was put together a brilliant cast of actors who wanted to be a part of this story — who read the script and said, Yes, this is important. This is cool. This is funny. And I want to be there. And so we all came together with equal passion for this project. And that made it so much easier because we got on set, and we knew what to do. And we just went about doing it.
POPDUST: What’s next for you?
I gotta go back to work next month. I can't say exactly what just yet, but as soon as I sign the details, you will be the first to know.
The American Fiction cast is a feat.
A character can’t easily hide on screen, — from the audience or himself. But the heroic work of the ensemble cast, their chemistry, and the emotional depth they bring to their characters make for performances worthy of a Best Picture Oscar nom.
To actualize this on screen, it’s necessary for the relationships between the characters to feel lived in. “I hate my family,” Monk says at the beginning. But as the story slowly unspools, we realize the history that belies such oversimplification.
Alongside Sterling K. Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross plays his sister in one of her best performances yet. Johnny Ortiz plays his agent. Issa Rae plays novelist Sintara Golden. Seth Brody plays a Hollywood film director. All bouncing off Wright’s Monk.
Is American Fiction worth watching?
Everyone should see American Fiction. It threads the needle between funny and poignant without moralizing. In one scene, Monk’s romantic interest describes him as “funny like a three-legged dog.” The movie’s like this too. While the family relationships that anchor this outrageous tale provide some chuckle-worthy quips, this satire’s humor is often dark and ironic. It’s like Tar, but racial turmoil is to Monk what gender trouble is to Tar. Both masterful performances of problematic characters played by thespians at the peak of their powers.
“The stupider I act, the richer I get,” Monk remarks in this comedy of errors.
Is American Fiction a woke movie?
This is not some finger-wagging “woke” film (Green Book, I’m looking at you). In fact, Green Book has just the sort of racial narrative the movie makes fun of. If it were a palatable tale of Black and white, good and evil, it would be a shoo-in for the Best Picture Oscar. Instead, American Fiction is a complex portrait of a complicated character struggling to understand his relationship to his own Blackness. Through this journey — making many missteps along the way — Monk may not research any conclusions. But he is forced out of the safe cocoon of his superiority complex.
American Fiction is based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett. And given the rich tapestry of messy, flawed characters, it’s the kind of book that feels like a novel. Though the film was under the two hour mark (Oppenheimer, take notes), I found myself wanting more. I wanted to see our reluctant hero continue to confront his own limitations. I wanted more time with his family. Above all, every time Sterling K Brown, playing Monk’s brother, was on the screen, I wanted more.
Fraught, fledgling fraternity: Brotherhood buoys the film’s emotional core
For the unrestrained brilliance of his performance as Clifford Ellison, Sterling K. Brown received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Together Wright and Brown played brothers separated by circumstance and childhood wounds. Honestly, I’d have watched this film without all the melodrama if it were just about their relationship.
In moments I wondered: is this film focus on the wrong brother? One of the central tensions, embodied by the fraternal duo, is the tension between wanting to hide and wanting to be seen. Monk’s determined to let everyone know he’s suffering, and hide his success — as well as his most redeemable parts, his vulnerabilities — out of shame. His brother Cliff — Monk’s foil and his mirror — tries to bury his suffering as he assumes a new life of honesty. Unceremoniously forced from the closet, Cliff mourns his former life while attempting to accept his sexuality in real-time while his family does the same. Meanwhile, Wright’s character is being forced out of isolation.
“People want to love you,” Cliff tells Monk.
In turn, when their mother’s Alzheimer's causes her to mistake Monk for Cliff, she says: “Geniuses are lonely because they can’t connect with the rest of us. You’re a genius son … you’ve always been so hard on yourself.” Both are searching for connection, too trapped in their interiority to see it in each other.
This tension between invisibility and hypervisibility — as it plays out both in internal and external conflicts — takes cues from the tradition of African American literature. W.E.B. Du Bois, writing about double consciousness, wrote about the difference between Black interiority and Black exteriority. Black American authors have been writing about this phenomenon ever since. Everett’s take on it is an examination of how internalized racial trauma — coalescing in a cocktail of our other epistemic traumas and lived experiences — ruptures our relationships.
American Fiction is in theatres now. Watch the trailer here:
AMERICAN FICTION | Official Trailerwww.youtube.com