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American Fiction vs Non-Fiction

Exploring the conflicts portrayed within the award-winning film and what it reveals about America’s fraught relationship with race and perpetuation of media typecasting.

Within the first five minutes of its run time, the movie American Fiction manages to seamlessly illustrate the double-edged sword of racial awareness. Monk, our sarcastic protagonist, explains that he doesn’t “even really believe in race” to which his agent replies, “Yeah, the problem is that everyone else does”. This short yet salient exchange captures one of the paradoxical issues that exists when it comes to race in America, as individuals adapt from being colour blind, they in turn become blinded by colour. American Fiction succeeds in unapologetically illustrating these tensions and proving that, when it comes to representation, America truly only goes skin deep.

As a lover of the arts and a Nigerian American, I was very passionate about writing this article. Race is a tricky subject to broach within entertainment, however American Fiction finds a way to use satire in a way that strengthens its message rather than clouding it.

Monk, a middle-aged Black man, is a writer and professor currently struggling in multiple areas of his personal and professional life. To make matters worse, he is constantly reminded of the success of first-time author, Sintara Golden’s novel We’s Lives in da Ghetto. Her book seems to offer little literary value besides entertaining tired stereotypes of Black individuals. Even so, her novel is positioned at the front of bookstores while Monk’s novels are erroneously placed in the back corner of the shop under African American history. Tired of being told his books aren’t “Black enough”, Monk assumes the fake identity of convict Stagg R. Leigh and creates an autobiography My Pafology (later renamed 'F#%*'). To his dismay, this faux autobiography is a hit and Monk must juggle confronting the problems of his real life with the success of the fantasy he created.

Monk vs Sintara: The commodification of Black trauma

During Monk and Sintara’s first direct conversation, we see Monk express his confusion over her acceptance of stereotypical tropes. Sintara contends that her work is intended to represent the real experiences of a pocket of Black individuals. Moreover, if the public wants this type of literature, then there’s nothing wrong with providing it. This exchange made me wonder why this isolated experience is what the public wants. Why is it that oftentimes Black people feel irrelevant in the media unless they have a struggle story to push?

The problem isn’t giving such stories a platform, but rather the way in which they are packaged for the public. In such cases we are less interested in the message, than we are with pandering to the audience’s perception of Black stories. It is telling that the successful novels in the film that are treated as pinnacles of Black experience are somewhat inauthentic to the authors and purposely pander to publishers’ desire for Black trauma. Moreover, Monk’s past attempts to publish work true to his own ideas are disregarded and deemed as not Black enough…by White critics (please note that descriptions of White audiences are in context of the film). Because of this, authors like him are syphoned into creating work centred around broken families, incarceration, abuse, and poverty. While this is certainly an experience for some people and shouldn’t be invalidated, the fixation on trivialising these matters for a non-Black audience is problematic. And the reason it is done is because it sells.

This creates stories of caricatures and tropes that Black people either can’t relate to or feel pressured to fit into. There seems to be two options for Black characters in literature and films,the comedic relief friend” of the White protagonist (seen in movies like She's All That, Clueless, and Gone with the Wind) or “the victim” of society’s misfortune (seen in movies like Queen and Slim, For Colored Girls, and Them). While some recent films, such as Black Panther, subvert these stereotypes by showcasing and celebrating black heroes, the overwhelming majority of film and literature feature depictions of Black individuals that are one dimensional or exploitative. These narrow tropes are continuously shoved down our throats, yet the sellers of culture, like the publishers in American Fiction, believe that they have achieved proper representation. Furthermore, the persistent portrayal of Black caricatures can have damaging effects on the formation of identity through the phenomenon of double consciousness.

Monk vs Stagg: A model of double consciousness

The theory of double consciousness, created by W.E.B Du Bois refers to the  fracturing of marginalised minorities, for the sake of assimilating into a society which rejects them. Another similar concept is “code switching” which is a more modern term that describes when individuals adopt language and mannerisms different from their own to fit into their given community. In a way, code switching is an external display of the internal identity conflict of double consciousness.

Through the course of the film, we see Monk finally receive public praise for his work, the rub is that it isn’t him who is a success, but Stagg, a caricature created to satiate non-Black individuals’ concept of “Black” literature and experience. The paradox of Monk and Stagg’s separation within the context of one individual is a perfect visualisation of double consciousness.

Although Monk never shows a desire to become Stagg, during various points we can see his outrage and disappointment that publishers and even people close to him are enamoured by the fictional character’s autobiography. Monk even ends his relationship with his girlfriend Coraline due to her approval of the novel (even though he wrote it). This is because although Stagg is a part of Monk, they are in competition. As humans, it is common to have several different aspects of self, however in the case of double consciousness the identity is less so of an integration of self, but a mask. Moreover, the more acceptance that Monk garners as Stagg, the more difficult it is for him to put down the mask. This is one of many reasons why popularising and promoting a skewed view of Black identity is extremely damaging.

To avoid being typecast as an Oreo or too “ghetto”, many individuals of colour must adopt their own versions of “Stagg”. Although one could argue that you shouldn’t care what people think and be your true self, oftentimes the individuals who fall in the category of double consciousness lack the privilege to do so. American Fiction succeeds in showing some of the granular ways in which this occurs. As seen with Monk, failing to conform to stereotypes changes job outcome and in more extreme cases can be the reason why people are denied work, housing, and several important opportunities.

America vs “race”: what now?

American Fiction shows how we place implicit expectation on minorities to conform to narrow and ignorant views of identity. We need to move away from the pathological need to categorise everything into a neat box as we often do when we say: “the Black experience”.

As Monk teaches us, his past stories are by definition “Black stories” not because they confine to someone’s prejudiced views but because he is Black, and he has written a story. Moreover, not everything is meant to be funnelled through a race lens. Once we truly internalise this concept is when we will broaden our perspectives as a society and stop invalidating the experiences of people of colour.


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