Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Best of 2023, #9: American Fiction

This is definitely the sort of movie where giving it a Best Picture nomination does it no favors. It’s a sly, funny dramedy, but a modest one. It’s nice for Jeffrey Wright to finally get a nomination, but it would be odd if he won for this, and the same with Sterling K. Brown. They’re great actors who will hopefully eventually win for meatier roles.

The movie kept reminding me of the worst-titled movie of all time, The 40 Year Old Version. I liked that movie slightly better, but they’re both good. Both have a similar skewering of white gatekeepers hungry for stories of black suffering, while making life miserable for black authors looking to tell more complex stories. I wish that movie had had some of this movie’s acclaim.

It was amusing watching this movie with my wife, who has actually served on literary award committees and kept blowing her top, saying “That’s not how awards committees work!” I think everybody says that when they unexpectedly see their profession onscreen.

The whole movie essentially builds to one very deadpan, very funny joke, when the two black authors don’t want to give the award to the parody-of-black-misery novel, but the three white authors on the committee outvote them, and justify it by saying, “We really need to listen to black voices right now.” A great example of a joke that’s entirely serious for everyone onscreen.

The movie ends in a meta way by acknowledging the tension between how it should end and how it would end. Every writer grapples with this. In real life, people avoid conflict, and things rarely climax satisfactorily. When we force things to climax, we know that we’re bending out characters out of shape. This movie cleverly has it all, giving us the good (which is to say, realistic) ending, the better (more dramatic) ending and the best (tragic) ending, then lets us choose, knowing that our choice might implicate us as being no better than the gatekeepers the film pillories.

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