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TIFF 2023: American Fiction, Wicked Little Letters, The Critic

What I love most about writing dispatches is trying to find a common theme between the films I’m reviewing. Sometimes, that throughline is apparent before I’ve watched anything. Other times, it’s a total mystery how they’ll connect. In this case, a satirical comedy about Black representation, a bleak character study of a London drama critic, and a period piece centering two warring English women feel as distant as possible. But, believe it or not, a detail binds them: They’re consumed by the damage deeply held secrets do to the soul of the secret-keeper.  

I hate to begin with a question, but how do Black creatives morally subsist in a media universe so dominated by pernicious white people? Prototypically, Black writers, directors, and artists are expected, primarily by fellow Black folks, to remain ethically, racially, and politically pure in the face of white capitalist ghouls latching onto the trend of “representation” to shift films trading in the broad subgenre of Black trauma porn for awards prestige and high box office numbers. It appears to be an impossible landscape for many Black artists to navigate. 

In the whip-smart, nimble satire “American Fiction,” debut writer/director Cord Jefferson (adapting Percival Everett's novel, Erasure) considers such questions through the esteemed New England English professor and struggling writer Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright). Fed up with “lesser” books that pander to white people through stereotypical hood narratives and garner more attention than his well-considered novels, Monk decides to write a fake book—initially entitled “My Pafology” and later re-titled the “Fuck"—that is so obnoxiously stereotyped that it puts a mirror to the corrupt tastes of the white literary establishment. He assumes the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, a convicted man on the run from authorities. He expects the novel to fail spectacularly; it, of course, becomes a raging success, leading to a major book deal and a movie option. 

While I’m sure many will compare “American Fiction” to other movies that have critiqued the place of Black folks within the entertainment ecosystem—such as “Bamboozled” and “Hollywood Shuffle”—Jefferson’s film is smaller in scope, more measured in its provocations, and works with a more interpersonal and intimate lens. Monk is a grumpy, lonely man navigating the tragedy of his mother receiving an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. His sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) moves through financial trouble; his brother (Sterling K. Brown) is spiraling from his wife catching him in bed with a man. However, Monk struggles to connect with them emotionally, to understand the very different relationship they shared with his parents.  

"American Fiction" is about the bias and prejudices in the media and how such an imbalanced relationship with Black creatives places an undue burden on Black artists. A confrontation between Wright and Issa Rae's character—who has published a book similar to Monk's fake one—exemplifies how such philosophical battles play out between Black folks. But it’s also a film concerned with the crushing weight of secrets, of hiding who you are. Such a distance soon jeopardizes Monk’s idyllic relationship with his neighbor and new girlfriend, Coraline (Erika Alexander). 

Amid a cascading jazz score and the ocean vista of Monk’s beach house, Wright, displaying the dry wit he makes such precise use of in Wes Anderson’s films, offers some of his best internal work and caustic readings. But as many in my screening hooted and hollered, particularly white folks, discomforting some of my Black colleagues, I was left with one question: Did the white people in my screening love this film because they’re familiar with how the joke ends?

It almost feels like a trap to negatively review a film called “The Critic,” but here we go. Set in Pre-WWII London, England, 1936, director Anand Tucker’s period piece wades through historical anti-queer laws, anti-Black prejudices, and the rise of Fascism through the eyes of acerbic drama critic for The Daily Chronicle, Jimmy Erksine (Ian McKellen). Witty, learned, precise, vicious, and mean, Erskine is the kind of critic who can make or break your career. He's also the stereotype most people align with critics: Suspicious of the proverbial common man as he lives in luxury, brutalizing all and sacrificing nothing.  

But his time atop the food chain is in danger: The owner of the Chronicle has passed away, and his son, David Brooke (Mark Strong), wants to clear out the old guard. Apart from his age, Esksine’s fierce hatred of the popular actress Nina Land (Gemma Arterton)—a performer Brooke loves—and the writer’s gay lifestyle, picking up trades and living with his Black secretary, make him a prime target of Brooke. When Erskine crosses the law, he loses his position. But he has a diabolical plan he hopes will return him to prominence, no matter the consequences. 

Adapted by Patrick Marber from Anthony Quinn’s novel Curtain Call, “The Critic” falls squarely into the depraved homosexual trope, which is further aggravated by Erskine being simply one-note. While McKellen gets some catty one-liners in, delivered with excellent precision, he’s the only one giving this character any sort of believable arc. There is a particularly heinous scene where it feels like the fascists are doing everyone a favor by shutting his piehole. The film is further sunk by odd characterizations, daft editing choices, and heavy-handed compositions. “The Critic,” at best, would fit well with “Green Book.” Do with that what you will.  

Another film about a person who’s just a bit too honest, thereby earning everyone’s ire, is director Thea Sharrock’s funny yet politically inept period piece “Wicked Little Letters.” Set in 1920s England, it concerns the pious Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) and her dogmatic father Edward (Timothy Spall), accusing the lewd, abrasive, sharply independent single mother Rose (Jessie Buckley) of sending foul-mouthed poisoned penned letters. All of the prim and proper Brits believe Edith against Rose. After all, Rose is from Ireland. Police Officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan) thinks more lurks beneath the surface. 

“Wicked Little Letters” wants to be a narrative about women breaking out of their patriarchal and Puritanical boxes at the height of the Suffragette movement and, in some respects, succeeds. Edith and Rose might be two extremes, but both characters are similarly attacked because they equally buck expectations: Edith is a spinster, and Rose is outspoken. Colman and Buckley, re-teamed after “The Lost Daughter,” are also an exceptional double-act whose comedy arises from their distinct deliveries, mannerisms, and internal approach. 

But this is the kind of broad progressive film that sees all representation as good representation, and the problem with “Wicked Little Letters” stems from Vasan’s Moss. Startlingly brilliant in “We Are Lady Parts,” Vasan is saddled here with bad material. Moss, a Brown woman battling her sexist fellow officers, just wants to prove Rose’s innocence because it’ll mean Moss is responsible for making arrests. Yay? 

Women should be represented everywhere, but a film that sees being a cop as the highest form of feminism is skating on thin ice. In fact, it doesn’t feel like Moss wants to be a cop to clean up the system from the inside. Instead, it’s to serve her father’s memory by following in his footsteps. Her very presence is broadly suggested as a step forward to better policing when, in reality, it's the basest form of POC progress. If only for its exceptional performers, “Wicked Little Letters” is at least entertaining, so long as you don’t pull too hard at its loose threads.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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