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Madison Public Library branches to screen ‘American Fiction’ in celebration of Juneteenth; here’s our review

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Due to popular demand from patrons and in celebration of Juneteenth, the 2023 award-winning dramedy American Fiction will be shown at the Hawthorne Library on Thursday, June 20 at 2 p.m. and as part of Pinney Library’s Pinney Friday Flicks on Friday, June 28 at 6 p.m.

Based on Percival Everrett’s 2001 novel Erasure and directed by Cord Jefferson, American Fiction follows Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison as he goes from struggling novelist to literary sensation after he writes a book that the publishing industry deems “best-seller worthy.” Equal parts family drama and racial satire, American Fiction shines an unflinching, tongue-in-cheek light on the fraught intersections of art, consumer capitalism, and which stories are ours to tell.

Check out Madison365’s review below to learn more about the film and its resonance to our Madison community.  

Following a family tragedy and confronted with the monetary costs of taking care of his increasingly ailing mother, Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (played by Jeffrey Wright) sits down at his desk to write a book called My Pafology about a Black man living a life of crime and delinquency.

In the scene, Monk’s characters (a Black father and son) are literally in the room with him, acting out his painfully derivative narrative as he writes it. The protagonist turns to Monk and asks him what to say next. “I think now will come some sort of dumb melodramatic sob story where you highlight your broken interiority,” Monk replies, then turns to his computer to compose just that.

At the time, Monk’s writing career is down in the dumps: his novels, which are astute and complex, hardly sell, and are shelved in the “African American Studies” category of bookstores despite having little to do with Black narratives themselves. 

But after witnessing a packed room cling to every word of author Sintara Golden’s (played by Issa Rae) debut novel We’s Lives in the Ghetto—in which she leans into racist stereotypes about Black people and writes exclusively in African American Vernacular English—Monk tries his own hand at caricaturing his culture for the sake of selling a book. 

He sends the manuscript to his agent, knowing nothing will become of it. But that’s where he’s wrong: the publishing industry, packed with white execs eager to prove they’re not racist, eats it up. Monk is shot into stardom under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, who he claims is an ex-convict and fugitive.

Such is the struggle of many authors of color today, who are often only paid attention to by the publishing industry when they divulge the most traumatic, sensational, or palatable parts of their stories. Growing up in a family of doctors and as a college professor himself, Monk’s lived experience is worlds away from the ones depicted in his book, but it’s the only kind of narrative that the publishing industry is willing to simultaneously reduce him to and reward him for.

While Monk is incredulous that anyone would actually be interested in My Pafology over his serious works, his publisher solemnly reminds him: “White people think they want the truth, but they don’t. They just want to feel absolved.” As he meets with editors and film execs, cosplaying in speech and dress as his alter ego, Monk quite literally bashes his head against his desk as he discovers how much social capital and monetary gain his charade is affording him.

Against this backdrop of the publishing industry’s liberal audacity play out the more textured nuances of Monk’s life, from navigating his mother’s illness and fraught relationship with his brother, to testing the waters of a new and healthy romance. Operating on two different registers, American Fiction deftly illustrates the gap between what the white imagination thinks Black life is—marked solely by poverty, crime, and violence—and what it can be in all of its complexities, both heartbreaking and joy-filled.

Especially in the midst of book bans and attacks on critical race theory both in Wisconsin and beyond, it’s important now more than ever to uplift literary voices and stories that up until very recently, have remained at the margins. And yet, in a town like Madison which touts its inclusivity and openness, but where people of color still largely feel siloed in their respective ethnic enclaves, American Fiction serves as as a reminder that engaging with books written by authors of color is only one way to familiarize ourselves with experiences that are different than our own.

In consuming these stories, it’s important that we don’t fall into the trap of flattening people of color to pre-prescribed notions of what we think their lives should look like or what stories we think they should be telling. While the novel on which the film is based was published in 2001, American Fiction’s resonance in today’s literary landscape is a reminder of how much room there is left to grow, and how many unsung stories have yet to see the light.

Visit this page to learn more about Madison Public Library’s Juneteenth-related events for the rest of this month.