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“American Fiction” USG Movies review: humor from the harsh reality

The facade of a movie theater with darker green accents surrounding the doors. A marquee displays coming attractions while the theater itself is flanked by a blue sky and green tree.
Front entrance of the Princeton Garden Theatre.
Jean Shin / The Daily Princetonian

Coming off of five nominations from the 2024 Academy Awards, Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” was USG Movies’ latest pick for their free weekly showing at the Princeton Garden Theatre. 

The comedy/drama, which premiered in September 2023, follows the protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, portrayed by Jeffrey Wright. A Black author and professor, Monk has published several novels, however, none have received critical acclaim. While he navigates the publishing industry’s bias against books written by Black authors, Monk is also left to deal with his personal family struggles. Monk grows frustrated that to be praised, Black authors must write stories highlighting Black Americans’ struggles, like supporting character Sintara Golden’s “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto," portrayed by Issa Rae. Professional woes are compounded by personal ones when Monk's sister passes away.


While navigating frustration with his field and grief for his sister, Monk is driven to write a book unlike any he has authored before. Under a pseudonym, Monk writes the very same kind of narrative he resents: a story focused on violence and crime, giving readers what they believe to be valuable insight into the Black American experience. Ultimately, the book becomes the highlight of his career.

While “American Fiction” is notable for its satire and witty dialogue, the storyline also delivers an authentic and complex examination of race, media, and family dynamics. Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal of Monk, despite the seriousness of the content, delivers refreshing comedic relief. For instance, when Monk hastily removes his books from the “African American Studies” section of a bookstore as his book’s subject matter is unrelated, he humorously ignores an employee’s protest. This reflects a larger truth of “American Fiction,” for while the film grapples with heavy themes and harsh realities of racial discrimination, it offers balance with glimmers of levity. 

While at times the plot of the movie feels like two separate stories — one in which Monk grapples with the expectations of Black authors and a second in which he struggles to accept the loss of his sister and to support his ailing mother — the two storylines intertwine as the film progresses. Monk is incentivized to use the earnings from the novels he wrote as a joke to provide amenities for his mother’s declining health. In doing so, he sacrifices his income for something more important to him: his family. However, with signs of his mother’s health getting worse, it is unclear to Monk how effective his efforts may be. 

Jeffrey Wright, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for the upcoming award show in March 2024, delivers a genuine performance, making it difficult to imagine another actor taking on the role of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison. “American Fiction,” is a story about the intersection between media, family, and introspection. While Monk despises the portrayal of Black Americans in entertainment, “American Fiction” presents such narratives through a new lens, leading viewers not only to laugh but also reflect.  

Annie Wang is an assistant editor for The Prospect from W. Va. She can be reached at