This story contains spoilers for the ending of American Fiction. When the end credits began to roll at the close of American Fiction, the other five critics in the screening and I sat in the empty theater and remained in our seats for so long that you would’ve thought we were in a MCU screening waiting for a post-credits scene to start rolling. But there was nothing more; the lights slowly came on, and we were forced to leave the theater. On my way home, I kept chewing on the ending scene, an internal debate of whether I liked it or even understood it. I didn’t know what to do with American Fiction — and that’s a good thing.
American Fiction follows the personal and professional turmoil of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a down-on-his luck writer whose once promising career is, to his disbelief and disdain, utterly flopping. In a landscape where he feels that the only way to be successful as a Black author is to pump out hackneyed narratives about Black suffering and trauma, Monk finds himself struggling to sell his work. The rising star of Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), a literature newbie whose debut novel about life in the hood becomes an instant bestseller, sparks his righteous indignation. Furious that there’s seemingly only one method of being Black and appealing to the mainstream book community, Monk decides to get back at the publishing industry by sending a draft of My Pafology, a collection of some of the most cliche racial stereotypes that he can think of.
Joke’s on him, though: people love My Pafology (later renamed, rather ridiculously, Fuck). No matter how wild the book or the fake persona he claims is responsible for becomes — under his pseudonym, Monk claims to have broken out from prison — the self-righteous prank actually turns into a huge hit. It gets purchased by a major publisher and even picked up to be adapted into a movie, poised to be one of the biggest films Hollywood has seen in decades. Obviously, the success is a financial blessing (Monk is able to become the breadwinner for his family in a time of crisis), but at the same time, the immediate critical acclaim from industry peers and fans alike is a nightmare to the man who’s prided himself on only writing the best of the best.
By the end of the film, Monk feels like a complete fraud. Yes, his book lines his pockets and helps him support his family in a tough time, but it also causes him to compromise his creative integrity as a writer. When Fuck is honored with a writing prize at a major industry award ceremony, he takes the stage hoping to finally come clean and end the charade. End scene.
As it turns out, the climactic moment is actually an imagining of the plot of a totally new film — a film about Monk’s lie gone too far. He’s meeting with Wiley (Adam Brody) to pitch this story instead of Fuck, and surprise surprise, the bigwig director is intrigued. They brainstorm a few different endings — including a sweeping romantic reunion with Coraline (played by Erika Alexander), his patient-to-a-fault new girlfriend — but the one that really gets Wiley’s wheels turning is the one that Monk (and I) hates the most. In this version, Monk accepts the award and starts to reveal the truth about his novel only for the FBI to break down the door, guns drawn. The agents, who believe that Monk really is a murderous felon on the run, take note of the trophy in his hand, mistake it for a gun, and empty their ammunition into his body, killing our anti-hero on the spot. The thought of the movie coming to a close with a closeup shot of Monk bleeding to death in front of his industry peers thrills Wiley, and he doesn’t hesitate to agree to green light the film. It’s Oscar bait after all, he tells Monk excitedly. Defeated, the writer leaves Wiley’s film set to ride off into the sunset with his brother Clifford (Sterling K. Brown, looking incredible).
Weeks after watching American Fiction, I still can’t quite pinpoint my take on that jarring ending. I didn’t know what Cord Jefferson was trying to say by wrapping up this already stressful tale in such a chaotic way. Was he trying to imply that as creatives, no matter our best intentions or moral code, we are all slaves to capitalism, and that our work will inevitably bend the knee to the almighty dollar? Did he mean to stress that within a white supremacist media context, Blackness will always be commodified for the masses? Was Jefferson pointing out the hypocrisy of bourgeois Black elite spaces and the futility of intraracial classism? Is the entire film a metaphor for the insidious nature of anti-Blackness and how we as Black people often perpetuate it without even knowing?
Yes…and no. Maybe all of those things. Or none of them. It’s your call, really.
“Art that you can engage with and talk about is my favorite type of art,” Jefferson told Unbothered during an interview about the film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). “My metric for great art is how long I'm thinking about it after I've seen it or after I've read it. How long does this thing linger with me? Am I still trying to put together how I feel about it?”
“I didn't want to spoonfeed people a message,” he said of his overall goal for American Fiction. “I want to just give voice to these kinds of conversations and then let people take from it what they may.”
Still, one thing that Jefferson is very explicitly hoping his audience will wrestle with after leaving the theater is the societal fascination with Black hardship. In American Fiction, the moment that Monk realizes what he’s done by suggesting the sudden death of his own character, you can literally see the color drain from his face, a sharp contrast to the glee on Wiley’s. Monk feels that he’s betrayed himself (and, in his mind, his community) with this ending, resigned to perpetuating a cycle of what he feels are one-note, cliched representations of Blackness, down to a tragic conclusion at the hands of the police state.
Meanwhile, Wiley practically swoons at the prospect of another Black life being brutally lost to state-sanctioned murder. His excitement, so predictable that it’s almost comical, is a disappointingly accurate reflection of a larger culture in which Black struggle is casually served up on a platter for mainstream entertainment.
“You’re not laughing at a Black man being killed by the police,” Jefferson clarified when asked if the moment was intentionally played for laughs, “You’re laughing at the knowing that [Wiley] would automatically love the idea.” The more people consume these types of violent narratives, the films suggests, the more they become desensitized to it, normalize it, and even seek it out, further dehumanizing victims of racial violence in the process. And now, against his better judgment, Monk has contributed to the problem.
If Jefferson’s main intention with American Fiction’s controversial ending is to spark discourse, it does just that. From start to finish, this story will have you talking (and, more than likely, arguing about it online). Just like Erasure, the 2001 Percival Everett novel that it’s adapted from, American Fiction is just a story about a man at a moral crossroads in his life, told without bias or the desire to make anyone pick a side. To his own admission, however, Jefferson knows that audiences will have…thoughts about Monk’s decision to keep playing the game. Given everything we’ve seen about the character and his very strict, very strong beliefs about what constitutes “real” art, it feels wrong for him to go out sad that way. (Writing an ending where a Black man is murdered by the police isn’t exactly respite from Black trauma porn.) But, one might argue, the messiness of Monk’s own life could have also softened his hard sentiment about the “right” way to talk about the Black experience; after all, his personal drama was something straight out of a Tyler Perry movie, deep, dark family secrets and all. Perhaps being in the thick of his own wreckage — wreckage that outsiders might rush to pathologize and racialize — made Monk realize that Blackness isn’t a monolith, and it isn't productive to categorize or rank its many realities.
Monk’s unique experience and the controversial actions that he takes because of it are meant to be discussed and questioned and challenged. It’s okay that the ending of American Fiction will strike a nerve because ultimately, the real point with this movie might be that it’s up to us as the viewers to determine the point for ourselves. And isn’t that the kind of art that Monk was striving to make all along?
American Fiction is now available in select theaters.