(director/writer: Cord Jefferson; screenwriter: based on the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett/Percival Everett; cinematographer: Cristina Dunlap; editor: Hilda Rasula; music: Laura Karpman; cast: Jeffrey Wright (Thelonious “Monk” Ellison), Tracee Ellis Ross (Lisa), John Ortiz (Arthur), Leslie Uggams (Agnes Ellison), Issa Rae (Sintara Golden), Keith David (Willy the Wonker), Adam Brody (Wiley), Erika Alexander (Coraline), Sterling K Brown (Clifford Ellison), Okieriete Onaodowan (Van Go Jenkins), Nicole Kempskie (Sintara’s moderator); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Cord Jefferson, Ben LeClair, Nikos Karamigios, Jermaine Johnson; MGM/Orion/Amazon; 2023)

“A literary satire on how racial stereotypes get unfairly used to exploit the Black experience in the book industry.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A literary satire on how racial stereotypes get unfairly used to exploit the Black experience in the book industry. It’s also an emotional drama on a dysfunctional family. The twisty film is written and directed by Cord Jefferson, in his feature film debut, after his stint as a TV writer and a journalist (he’s an Emmy winning writer for his book Watchmen). The comical satire is based on the 2001 novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett, who is co-writer. The film is superbly acted by its star Jeffrey Wright, is sometimes funny and sometimes perceptive, even if it’s not always that entertaining.

The slow-paced and uneven film dives into the literary world’s dealings with Black writers.

The middle-aged Black man, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), is a grumpy college professor and a struggling serious writer, who has not published anything in years because his subject matter is questioned by publishers as not being Black enough.

While teaching a class on American literary greats, a woke coed objects to the title of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Artificial Nigger.” He calls her out for that ignorant comment and they get into a heated argument. As a result, the administration puts him on an unpaid leave.

During this mandatory break, Monk leaves his California home to attend a book convention in Boston and to visit his dementia suffering mother Agnes (Leslie Uggams) and feisty sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) who live in Boston. The sister is pissed because her brother fails to keep contact with her and she’s left alone caring for their ailing mom, who needs a lot of attention. Sis also complains that her other brother, a divorced egotistical surgeon (Sterling K Brown), has selfishly separated himself from having anything to do with the family. Before Monk can reconcile things with his sister and straighten out their broken relationship, she dies.

At the book convention, the crowd rallies around the young writer Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), who is there to promote her new exploitation bestseller “We Lives in Da Ghetto.”

Monk resents and is jealous of Black writers like Golden who get rich and famous as they trivialize the Black experience by pretending to tell it like it is on racial issues by appealing to the way liberal white readers and white publishers view Blacks. As a response to Golden’s stereotyped racial book, he cynically decides to also write a money-grab book (hoping he will sell enough copies to place his mom in a nursing home). He makes it into a gangsta book, called Ma Pafology, using the pen name Stagg R. Leigh. It’s the kind of sham book Monk has always refused to write, believing he can write literary books where he doesn’t have to identify himself as a Black man. He thereby is corrupted by the same system he was always adverse to, and gets his agent Arthur (John Ortiz) to have the lurid book published. When it becomes a best seller, he gets a lucrative film deal from the oily Hollywood producer Wiley (Adam Brody).

The film mocks both the serious writer and the hustling writer for their myopic views on culture and for not understanding what is the Black experience in America. It tells us there are so many Black writers willing to sell out for the easy money, that the real problems the Black writers face can never be resolved in a contemporary America that prefers to hear the fiction about the Black writer rather than the truth. 

It played at the Toronto Film Festival.

REVIEWED ON 12/12/2023  GRADE: B