By Lynn Venhaus

A scathing social satire about the current cultural obsession that reduces people to stereotypes is manifested in “American Fiction,” which is a remarkable directorial debut by Cord Jefferson.

Monk (Jeffrey Wright) is a frustrated novelist who is fed up with people profiting from ‘black’ entertainment that relies on offensive tropes. So, to prove his point, he uses a pen name to write an outlandish ‘black’ book of his own, which propels him to the heart of hypocrisy and the madness he claims to disdain.

Jefferson, who has toiled on some tony television series – “Succession” and “Watchmen” included, has cleverly adapted Percival Everett’s 2001 book “Erasure,” which criticizes the narrow view of black-focused entertainment like Sapphire’s novel “Push,” which was adapted into the film “Precious,” as authentic.

His sharp jabs against the publishing world and Hollywood entertainment that perpetuates tired cliches delivers some knockout punches, but there is a universal family dynamic as a major part of the journey too that emotionally connects.

Jeffrey Wright gives one of his best performances as Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, angry and alienating, who decides to fight back – if you ‘can’t beat them, join them’ – and dumbs down his writing in a book “My Pafology,” as Stagg R Leigh, an ex-con who’s on the run.

That not only gives him the praise that had eluded him but also enlarges the hypocrisy involved. As he tells his publisher, Arthur, nicely played by ace character actor John Ortiz: “The dumber I behave, the richer I get.”

In puncturing the stereotypes through thoughtfully written characters that are part of Monk’s personal orbit, Jefferson gives us a generational story that everyone can relate to because they appear as real people just trying to figure out life.

The supporting cast is exceptionally deep – creating nuanced turns are Sterling K. Brown as Monk’s irresponsible brother Cliff who has now come out as queer, Tracee Ellis Ross as his stressed-out lawyer sister Lisa and Leslie Uggams as their mother Agnes, who is beginning to show signs of dementia.

Tracee Ellis Ross, Leslie Uggams

Lisa has been taking care of their mom, and Monk’s other siblings are harboring resentment about his lack of commitment to his family. Granted, he is in L.A., but now back in Massachusetts, where he’s staying at his childhood home, full of memories and triggers. This is a family of intellectuals whose lives are enriched through art and culture.

Erika Anderson creates another layer as a single woman lawyer romantically interested in Monk, but whose eyes are wide-open to his flaws.

Through his uneasy relationships with his family, we understand that Monk, often self-righteous and condescending, needs to change and could be ripe for a reckoning.

Issa Rae is buzzy author Sintara Golden who pushes all of Monk’s buttons with her critical darling but pandering book, “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto,” that the public has embraced for what they believe is black suffering,

Jefferson’s script is smartly written, but there is a lot to digest over the 2-hour runtime. Besides the blistering social commentary, the family story has multiple layers. This cast really delivers the film’s heart as these imperfect individuals go through changes, not forgetting the past relationships while forging new ones.

In a sweet subplot, the family housekeeper, Lorraine, beautifully played by Myra Lucretia Taylor, reunites with the beach town’s law enforcement officer Maynard (Raymond Anthony Thomas).

Laura Karpman’s jazz-inflected score delicately punctuates the exchanges and confrontations, and the film’s other elements are solid — cinematography by Cristina Dunlap, production design by Jonathan Guggenheim and editing by Hilda Rasula.

The film’s message is not unlike what Spike Lee attempted in 2000 with “Bamboozled,” only instead of television, this is set in academia and book publishing in today’s ‘influencer’ world.

The wrap-up isn’t as satisfying as it should be, but this material is clever and the performances so superbly rendered. “American Fiction” has enough thought-provoking material to keep us mulling over the body of work, and appreciate what it’s trying to say.

F_01952_R Sterling K. Brown stars as Cliff Ellison, Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison and Erika Alexander as Coraline in writer/director Cord Jefferson’s AMERICAN FICTION An Orion Pictures Release Photo credit: Claire Folger © 2023 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

“American Fiction” is a 2023 social satire written and directed by Cord Jefferson. It stars Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, Sterling K. Brown, John Ortiz, Adam Brody, Leslie Uggams, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Raymond Anthony Thomas and Erika Anderson. It is Rated: R for language throughout, some drug use, sexual references, and brief violence. It opened in local theaters Jan. 5 after first debuting at the St. Louis International Film Festival in mid-November. Lynn’s Grade: A-

By Lynn Venhaus
A well-acted, well-written satirical comedy about organized religion manipulators has one major obstacle: Its subject matter is icky.

And infuriating. And such easy targets.

In the aftermath of a huge sexual-misconduct scandal, Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall), the first lady of a prominent Southern Baptist megachurch, attempts to help her disgraced pastor-husband, Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), rebuild their congregation.

As we’ve seen in headlines and tabloids, in the name of the Lord, some so-called Christian leaders who are respected and admired prey upon the vulnerable and the devout, which is disgusting and disturbing

Because the two disingenuous lead characters are so unlikable, it’s not only a skin-crawling watch, but a hard sell.

Similar real-world scandals have become commonplace, therefore, a narrative about such thoroughly reprehensible people is tough to endure, even when sharp barbs and the audacity of it all lands a laugh.

Nevertheless, the performances are stellar – Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall give the characters more depth than written. It would be easy to make buffoons of the deceitful pastor and his conspicuous consumer wife attempting to redeem themselves and return to an extravagant lifestyle.

The Emmy-winning Brown, a native St. Louisan, tries to evoke sympathy as Lee-Curtis, but his role is too slimy and loathsome as an egotistical preacher convinced that they are entitled to live lavishly because of the work they do saving souls.

But oh, those deadly sins – lust, greed, pride, and envy — keep surfacing. Their personal demons can’t be so easily dismissed, no matter how much they pray away.

Childs confessed to his weaknesses, but this false prophet’s proclivity for down-and-out young men isn’t forgotten. While he is steadfast and focused on a comeback, hiring a documentary crew to film their work preparing the church to re-open, his hubris gets in the way.

Hall has more to do with her character’s arc as a clueless shopaholic who has pledged her loyalty, but slowly realizes that believing people will follow them back is folly – and frustrating, humiliating, and pathetic. Having her stoop to grovel roadside in mime-face is nearly the last straw.

It doesn’t help that former congregants now run a rival church opening on the same day. Nicole Beharie and Conphidance excel as Shakura and Keon Sumpter, a faithful couple in sharp contrast to the Childs’ pretensions and extravagance.

Austin Crute is memorable as one of Lee-Curtis’ victims, Khalil.

When reminders of the scandal won’t disappear, Childs gets more desperate — and the puffery gets more grandiose.

Writer-director Adamma Ebo developed her 15-minute short film she made in 2018 into this feature, her first, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is produced by her twin sister, Adanne Ebo.

John Collins’ production design is an eye-popping example of over-the-top opulence to portray the gaudy excesses of the Childs, their ostentatious mansion, and their ornate megachurch.

Costume designer Lorraine Coppin has assembled glamorous outfits for Hall, so that her character is flashy and elegant at the same time, perfectly coordinated and coifed for each look.

Maurice Norris has crafted a soundtrack superbly blending secular and gospel music.

At 1 hour and 42 minutes, one thinks a more succinct version would have worked just fine for the same effect.

Regina Hall, Sterling K Brown

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” is a 2022 comedy directed by Adamma Ebo that stars Sterling K. Brown, Regina Hall, Conphidance, Nicole Beharie and Austin Crute. It is rated R for language and some sexual content and has a run time of 1 hour, 42 minutes. It is in theaters and streaming on Peacock beginning Sept. 2. Lynn’s Grade: C+