Welcome to our Colossus Movie Guide for American Fiction. This guide contains our detailed library of content covering key aspects of the movie’s plot, ending, meaning, and more. We encourage your comments to help us create the best possible guide. Thank you!
What is American Fiction about?
American Fiction is a tale of two stories. The A plot is Monk’s literary career. The B plot is everything else in his life. The two combine to make a statement about Black stories in the landscape of American fiction. Specifically, American Fiction is a satire of the way the literary and film institutions promote works that reinforce stereotypes around drugs, poverty, and violence in the Black community. As opposed to what we see in the B Plot—a very relatable family drama that’s grounded, heartfelt, and humanistic. So American Fiction demonstrates both kinds of narratives—what’s encouraged and what seems to be forbidden, and makes the case that we need less of the first and more of the second. Surprisingly, the source material, Erasure, was published in 2001. The fact that American Fiction still resonates in 2023 is a frustrating one. But hopefully its success is a sign of changing tides.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Thelonious “Monk” Ellison – Jeffrey Wright
- Agnes Ellison – Leslie Uggams
- Cliff Ellison – Sterling K. Brown
- Lisa Ellison – Tracee Ellis Ross
- Lorraine – Myra Lucretia Taylor
- Maynard – Raymond Anthony Thomas
- Coraline – Erika Alexander
- Sintara Golden – Issa Rae
- Arthur – John Ortiz
- Wiley – Adam Brody
- Willy the Wonker – Keith David
- Van Go Jenkins – Okieriete Onaodowan
- Based on – Erasure by Percival Everett
- Written by – Cord Jefferson
- Directed by – Cord Jefferson
The ending of American Fiction explained
The end of American Fiction begins following the judge’s final vote for the New England Book Association’s Literary Award. There, Monk has his confrontation with Sintara Gold. It’s pretty much the most important conversation in the movie.
Monk: Do you mind if I ask you something?
M: What about F*** did you find pandering?
S: I can’t really put my finger on it, but, uh, it’s not different from some of what’s out there but it just felt…soulless, is the word I’m going to use. You said you agreed, right?
M: I do. I think it seems written to satisfy the tastes of guilt-ridden white people.
S: Yeah, the kind of book that critics call “important” and “necessary” but not “well-written.”
M: Exactly. Okay, so, and please don’t take offense at this, but, how is F*** so very different from your book?
S: Is that what this is about? You think my book’s trash.
M: No. To be honest, I-I haven’t read your book. I’ve read excerpts and it didn’t seem so dissimilar.
S: I did a lot of research for my book. Some of it was actually taken from real interviews. Maybe you’ve been up in your ivory tower of academia for so long, you’ve forgotten that some people’s lives are hard.
M: Your life? You went to an exclusive, bohemian college. You had a job at a fancy publishing house in New York.
S: So what? I don’t need to write about my life. I write about what interests people.
M: You write what interests white publishers fiending Black trauma-porn.
S: They’re the one buying the manuscripts. Is it bad to cater to their tastes?
M: If you’re okay feeding people’s base desires for profit—
S: I’m okay with giving the market what it wants.
M: That’s how drug dealers excuse themselves.
S: And I think drugs should be legal.
M: But you’re not fed up with it? The Black people in poverty. Black people rapping. Black people as slaves. Black people murdered by the police. Whole soaring narratives about Black folks in dire circumstances who still manage to maintain their dignity before they die. I’m not saying these things aren’t real. But we’re also more than this. And it’s like…so many writers like you can’t envision us without some white boot on our necks.
S: Do you get angry at Bret Easton Ellis or Charles Bukowski for writing about the down-trodden? Or is your ire strictly reserved for Black women?
M: Nobody reads Bukowski thinking his is the definitive white experience. But people, white people, read your book and confine us to it. They think that we’re all like this.
S: Then it sounds like your issue is with white people, Monk. Not me.
M: Maybe. But I also think that I see the unrealized potential of Black people in this country.
S: Potential is what people see when they think what’s in front of them isn’t good enough.
Following that conversation, the judges vote F*** to win the prize. The only dissenters are Monk and Sintara, the two people of color on the panel. The irony is that another judge says, “You know, it’s not just that it’s so affecting, I just think it’s essential to listen to Black voices right now.”
Monk then has a conversation with his mom. He tells his mom his dad was cheating on her. She explains he was bad at keeping secrets and that genius is lonely because they can’t connect with the rest of us. She calls him a genius but then also calls him Cliff.
At the ceremony for the New England Book Association’s Literary Award. F*** wins. As the crowd looks for the mysterious Stagg to finally appear, Monk takes the stage. He says he has a confession to make. We cut to black.
We cut to Monk on a film set. We’re no longer in Boston but across the country in Los Angeles. It turns out the ceremony scene was part of a script Monk had turned over to Wiley, the big shot Hollywood director. Wiley says there’s no resolution. Monk says in reality he didn’t say anything, he walked out of the ceremony, and that he doesn’t want a grandiose speech to spoon-feed everyone the morale of the story.
Wiley challenges him. “Nuance doesn’t put asses in theater seats.” So Monk proposes a big romantic conclusion where the character version of him leaves the award ceremony to make up with Coraline (his recent girlfriend). Monk explains in real life that Coraline won’t return his phone calls. Wiley rejects that, too. He says he wants to make something real.
So Monk proposes a conclusion where the FBI/police crash the ceremony to arrest “Stagg”, mistake Monk for a wanted felon, see the award in his hand, think its a weapon, then open fire. It’s stylized and dramatized with slo-mo and one of the most famous and overused pieces of classical music ever, Mozart’s “Lacrimosa”. Wiley loves it. “It’s perfect.” He then calls Monk “My brotha.”
Outside the movie studio, Monk gets in a car with Cliff. The brothers are finally on good terms. He jokes that Tyler Perry will play Cliff. Then looks over and sees a Black man dressed in slave attire, an extra from the set of Wiley’s movie, Plantation Annihilation. The guy gives a peace sign. Then Cliff and Monk drive off.
Thematically, everything you need to know is contained in that conversation between Monk and Sintara. It encapsulates the entire film.
American Fiction has two main stories that divide between Monk’s professional life and his personal life. The professional life focuses on the portrayal of Black people in fiction and involves the creation of Stagg R. Lee, the novel F***, and everything that follows, from the publication to the movie deal to the literary award. This portion of American Fiction recreates and satirizes the kind of pandering that Monk confronts Sintara about.
On the flip side you have Monk’s personal life. Dealing with the death of his sister, his mom’s Alzheimer’s disease, reconnecting with Cliff, his relationship with Coraline, and Lorraine’s subplot. It serves as an example of what Monk said to Sintara about being so much more than poverty, rapping, slaves, etc. It’s a story with no “white boot on the neck” and is outside the “confines” of the typical Black fiction we get in movies.
If that’s all American Fiction was doing it would be enough. But there’s more. Which is what we see with Wiley.
The cut from the award ceremony to Monk in Los Angeles with Wiley establishes that at least part of what we thought was the movie was actually Monk’s screenplay within the movie.
The safe assumption is that everything prior to the award ceremony happened as we saw it. Especially because Wiley and Monk corroborate details, like Coraline really existed and really won’t return Monk’s calls after their fight. And Monk gets into the car with Cliff, it’s not like it’s a different actor or the character has a different personality—that would point toward what we saw earlier being part of Monk’s “movie”. Instead, it’s still Sterling K. Brown and he’s as charmingly arrogant as before. So we should probably take everything before the award ceremony at face value.
What makes the scene with Wiley important is how it follows up on the conversation between Monk and Sintara. He seemed to feel justified in his stance. But Sintara did have the final word: “Potential is what people see when they think what’s in front of them isn’t good enough.” It’s a pointed follow-up to her preceding comment: “Then it sounds like your issue is with white people, Monk. Not me.”
Who should Monk blame for the pandering, exploitative fiction that’s so rampant. Sintara for writing it? The market for pushing it? White people for buying it? Is Monk’s problem really with the fiction, or is there a degree of self-loathing he hasn’t acknowledged. Does he think he’s not good enough? Which would recontextualize his statement about seeing the “unrealized potential of Black people in this country” as nothing more than a reflection of his dissatisfaction with himself. So when Sintara says “Potential is what people see when they think what’s in front of them isn’t good enough,” she’s really asking “Do you think we’re not good enough?”
After that, Monk tries to apologize to Coraline. He decides to make the movie with Wiley. And he finally asks his mom about his dad’s cheating. His mom’s statement that “genius is lonely because it can’t connect with the rest of us” reinforces that idea that Monk had distanced himself, culturally. The same way he had distanced himself from his friends and family and any potential romantic partners.
What’s important here is the response to his mom saying he’s a genius. Monk says “I certainly don’t feel like one, half the time.” That means the rest of the time he does feel like a genius. Except his mom says, “That’s because you’ve always been so hard on yourself, Cliffy.” It’s a darkly humorous moment, because Monk just had the ego to think he was the genius, only for the punchline to be his mom thought, due to the Alzheimer’s, that she was talking to Cliff.
That scene may seem superficial but it’s a crucial turning point. Monk had thought of himself as smarter than others, better than others. They hadn’t been good enough for him. But just as he’s questioning himself, his mom confirms that the genius wasn’t him, it was Cliff. That cuts Monk down. Instead of being superior, he’s just like everyone else.
So, what does he do? He panders. He writes the movie and doesn’t hesitate to give it the outrageous, cliche ending of the police shooting. It’s the exact kind of thing he had ranted at Sintara about. But now he’s doing it, too.
A one-dimensional reading of this is that Monk’s simply cashed in and took the easy route. It’s the “If you can’t beat them, join them” kind of conclusion. The deeper reading returns to what Sintara said about potential. It’s Monk realizing that he is good enough. That Cliff is good enough. That Sintara is good enough. That all the Black artists he’s been critical of are good enough. So he doesn’t have to hold them or himself to such an extreme standard. Which is why he works with a director making a movie called Plantation Annihilation and why he accepts the police shooting ending.
That’s all codified in that last moment where he looks over and sees the extra from Plantation Annihilation.
The half-glass-full interpretation is that Monk and the extra both accept that this is where things are at, and that’s okay, for now, but it doesn’t mean it will always be this way. The extra embodies where Black people had been in this country. While Monk and Cliff represent the present and the tomorrow. Afterall, Monk’s movie is mostly about him and his family—it just ends with a police shooting. Isn’t that progress?
The glass-half-empty view is that we’re in a country that won’t let Black people progress and keeps finding ways to put them back on the plantation, metaphorically speaking, through the fiction it allows. The narrative is the same. It’s only the times that have changed.
As is often the case, somewhere in the middle is probably the proper place to be.
The themes and meaning of American Fiction
Genius is lonely, but it doesn’t have to be
Monk has a bit of a superiority complex. We see it in how he talks to his students, his teaching peers, his writing peers, and his family. He has isolated himself and justified it through his ego. Over the course of American Fiction, we witness him begin to realize everything he had been missing out on. It starts with the death of Lisa. The two of them had been reconnecting after a long time and it seemed like the start of a new chapter in their relationship. Then Lisa has a heart attack.
Her passing is Monk’s first kick in the shin. Such a loss triggers an awareness of mortality and the fact that time is limited. So Monk, in his complicated way, begins to open up. He reconnects with his family. He writes a best-seller (even though it’s done as a joke). And he dates Coraline.
Even though things don’t work with Coraline, it was important that they happened. The end of their relationship puts things into context for Monk. Especially after what Sintara said about potential. He was happy with their relationship, perhaps in love, until Coraline read and liked F***. It’s like even though she had been good enough for Monk as a person, she suddenly wasn’t good enough for Monk the Author, the “genius”, because liking such pandering material meant, in his eyes, that she wasn’t living up to her potential. So he freaks out and ruins the relationship.
Monk’s second kick in the shin is Sintara line about seeing potential only in things you don’t think are good enough. After hearing that, he reaches out to Coraline. He’s finally ready to come down off the mountain. Which leads to the final kick—his mom referring to Cliff as the genius.
Once he’s grounded himself, Monk’s at a different place. He’s willing to work with Wiley. He’s willing to be more like Sintara. He has a positive relationship with his brother. It would be easy to argue that he’s compromised his standards. But another way to think about it is that he’s finally ready to accept people for who they are, himself included, and the world for what it is. And by doing so he’s able to be part of it all. Which isn’t without its negativity. But allows him to actually connect with others and begin to make a difference by having a voice in what’s made.
White people who “support” Black voices
American Fiction is harsh in its depiction of white allies. The New England Book Association only asks Monk and Sintara to be judges for the Literary Award because of accusations of lack of diversity. When the two judges who aren’t white say that F*** shouldn’t win because it’s problematic, they other judges overrule them, with one specifically citing how “essential it is to listen to Black voices.” Except for the ones who are right there, in the room.
Then there’s the publisher of F***. The scene where they talk about marketing strategy with “Stagg” is played for laughs but is incredibly painful. The two reps are very corporate, very white, and quite clueless. When Stagg sounds educated, they question his legitimacy. Once he swears and speaks incorrectly, they happily accept him. They ask him if it’s “based on his actual life,” despite how outrageous the book is, then willingly believe that, because it fits their stereotypes. Later, they talk about releasing the book for Juneteenth. Which isn’t something they want to do in solidarity but because they think it will maximize sales. It’s taking advantage of a memorial.
Then you have Wiley. A younger guy who thinks he’s hip. He does the dab and the hug. He calls Stagg “my brother.” Then just assumes Stagg was in jail for murder. When Monk flees the restaurant because he thinks an ambulance has come for his mom (who was at the agent’s office across the street), Wiley believes it was a Black man running from the law.
Through these three elements, American Fiction criticizes the assumptions white people make about Black people, the commercial-hijacking of culture and history, and the performative nature of many people who claim to be allies or champions of diversity.
Why is the movie called American Fiction?
The novel the movie’s based on is Erasure. The word “erasure” doesn’t show up in the entire book. So it doesn’t come from the text but is rather a commentary on the purpose of the text. It probably refers to the tension between who Monk (in the novel) is versus who the world wants him to be. As in, his real identity gets erased by the biases and expectations of white audiences. They want Stagg, not Monk. Because they expect someone like Stagg.
There’s a line near the end of the book that gets at this idea: “Had I by annihilating my own presence actually asserted the individuality of Stagg Leigh? Or was it the book that had given him life? … And what did it mean that I was even thinking of Stagg as having agency? What did it mean that I could put those questions to myself? Of course, it meant nothing and so, it meant everything.”
So why change to American Fiction?
I think the answer is probably in the fact that the book ends with the award ceremony. Stagg wins the award. Monk takes the stage. And it ends. The movie continues. Into the making of a movie.
So Erasure was more focused on the existential aspects of Monk the character. Novels inherently explore interiority in a way that film can’t because you’re often actively hearing what a character’s thinking. Movies have to externalize everything, either through visuals or dialogue (voice over is lame, so let’s ignore that as an option). Which is one of the reasons adaptations are often difficult or demand changes.
The title American Fiction puts the emphasis less on the personal identity crisis of Monk and more on the broader discussion of narrative art in the United States as it relates to Black stories and characters. Instead of the light shining on Monk, it’s turned on the audience. The writers. The industry. It’s no longer the individual’s crisis but inviting everyone else to be part of this reckoning.
Important motifs in American Fiction
The picture on the wall: Doll Test, 1947
In the discussion of the ending, we talked about the revelation of Monk’s self-loathing and Sintara’s last words causing him to question whether he thought his people were good enough. That might seem like a stretch to some. But the very next scene after the dialogue between Monk and Sintara finds Monk in a stairwell. He texts Coraline to apologize. Then calls to arrange a meeting with Wiley about a movie. All of that seems innocuous enough. But we need to talk about how that scene ends.
Monk stands up and begins to descend the stairs. But he pauses to look at a framed photo on the wall in front of him. It’s a black and white picture of a young Black boy sitting at a table. In the foreground, we see the arms of someone just off camera. In each hand is a doll. One doll is white. One doll is Black. The boy is pointing at the white doll.
It’s a famous image from a famous study called “The doll test”. The results were so powerful that they were used in lawsuits, like Brown v. Board of Education, that led to the desegregation of schools across America.
The photo Monk sees on the wall comes from an article called “Problem Kids” published in the July 1947 issue of Ebony magazine. The blurb beneath the photo read: “Which doll would you rather look like?” psychology asks Peter, who has a serious but undiagnosed emotional disturbance. He looks long at the colored doll but gropes for its white mate. Test and further analysis indicate Peter has an inferiority complex about his color which affects home and school life.
An explanation of the test, from the Gordon Parks Foundation: The tests were conducted using several dolls, all identical except for skin color. The Black children, ages 3-7, were asked to identify which doll they preferred. The majority preferred the white doll, leading Drs. Clark to conclude that “prejudice, discrimination and segregation” damaged their self-esteem and caused Black children to develop a sense of inferiority.
With that in mind, think back to the conversation between Sintara and Monk. His criticizing her and her eventual counterpoints that amount to “You’re letting white people off the hook but criticizing Black people. Do you think we’re not good enough? Do you think you’re not good enough?” To have Monk look at the photo of the Doll Test, a photo that encapsulates inferiority stemming from systemic issues—that’s not an accident. It’s exactly what movies do: externalize the interior world of the character. Remember that earlier in the film, Monk says “You know, I don’t even believe in race.”
If you don’t know the meaning of the picture, then what Monk’s feeling in that moment might be lost. Or pieced-together through what happens next. But when you understand the source of the photo, the importance of it, then it says everything.
Questions & answers about American Fiction
What does My Pafology mean?
It’s the Ebonics pronunciation of “pathology”. The Oxford definition for pathology is “the science of the causes and effects of diseases, especially the branch of medicine that deals with the laboratory examination of samples of body tissue for diagnostic or forensic purposes.” Or “pathological features considered collectively; the typical behavior of a disease.” For example, cancer has a different pathology than dementia.
So if you’re looking at the pathology of bronchitis you may notice that it affects the lungs but not the toes. The pathology of clubfoot is a shortened Achilles tendon that causes a foot turn.
The concept extends beyond medicine. Someone might say they want to understand the pathology of economic recession. So they’d start to put together a profile of what factors lead to recession, the impact of recession in the early stages, the middle stages, the late stages, then what variables might lead to recovery versus a downturn to depression.
So the title My Pafology is a study of who this person is. What made them this way. The consequences of being this way. It promises introspection. The use of Ebonics grounds it in the Black experience. Monk used Ebonics specifically as a condescending nod to Sintara’s book We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.
The irony being that American Fiction really is a pathology of Monk.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about American Fiction? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!