Jeffrey Wright stars in 'American Fiction.'
MGM/Everett Collection

The trouble with satires about white people is that you’re always left with the question of what next. Mocking racism is all great fun at first, and I felt a cringing pleasure watching Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction depict encounters that every non-white writer has experienced. It’s all true. I’ve been in meetings listening to how we might promote my work during AAPI heritage month. I’ve uttered lukewarm, unoriginal statements on anti-Asian racism and watched emotional white people burst into applause. I’ve been invited to join panels and committees so that the organizers could deflect accusations of bias or exclusion. I’ve had conversations with nervous white publishing professionals who weren’t sure if “yellowface” was a slur, if they could say it out loud, and if they could print it on the cover of a book.

But there always comes a moment when you run out of juice; when the laughter turns to sighs, and all the jokes start to ring hollow. The sheer volume of anecdotes isn’t funny anymore, it’s exhausting. True, it can be helpful to sit with stereotypes—they always illuminate more about the believer’s fantasies and paranoias than anything about the subjects—but sometimes the root of racism just isn’t that deep. Sometimes people are just stupid, ignorant, selfish, and annoying, and there’s nothing more to say. It’s bizarre to watch white audiences giggle at their own self-flagellation, anyhow. They’re only laughing because they feel immune—because deep down, they’re confident they would never behave so terribly. They would never pretend to be Asian on the internet, as June Hayward does in Yellowface. They would never protest a Black professor writing the N-word on a classroom whiteboard, as Monk Ellison’s (Jeffrey Wright) student does in American Fiction.

The greatest frustration with a race satire is that it turns all the focus back onto white people. Yellowface opens a lot of questions about cultural appropriation within the publishing industry, and then ends up right back with June—her feelings, her tragedy, her future prospects. This was deliberate. I wanted to structurally and thematically emphasize the voicelessness of Athena Liu, the deceased writer whose manuscript June steals and publishes as her own. She and the other Asian American characters in Yellowface exist as absence; we only ever get June’s interpretation of their positions. But I’ve always known I wouldn’t write that sort of story again. The conceit runs for 300 pages and that’s it, we’ve run out of things to say, and you can only bang your head against the wall so many times before you start seeing stars. I’ve spent quite enough time with girls like June. From here on out, I’d like to work on filling in the absence.

Erasure, the book by Percival Everett on which American Fiction is based, resolves this problem by putting two novels before the reader. There’s the garish and thudding My Pafology (the book Monk publishes under a pseudonym as a bitter joke), set against the particular, layered story of Monk and the rest of the Ellison family coming to terms with his father’s suicide and affairs, his sister’s murder, his brother’s sexuality, and his mother’s slow deterioration from Alzheimer’s. Erasure is brilliant because it doesn’t just offer a parody, it also offers an alternative. American Fiction is strongest when it leans into the same. The best parts of the film are not the cheeky, cheap laughs about the publishing industry’s shenanigans (and later, Hollywood’s similar shortcomings), but the loaded, tense confrontations between family members hurting in unseen ways they’re trying to make one another understand. Outside the theater, I heard someone call the film a “bait and switch.” The trailers advertised a cringey industry comedy, not a quiet family drama. But the movie doesn’t so much fool you into watching a different story than the one you thought you were going to get so much as it emphasizes all the narrative possibilities available if we’re not so concerned with the baggage of representation. What do we talk about when we’re finished catering to—or making fun of—the white gaze?

Class, for one thing. The book makes explicit that Monk doesn’t think much about race in part because he doesn’t have to; because his family of wealthy doctors own a beach home near Boston and have employed a live-in housekeeper, Lorraine, for decades. The film has a shakier approach to money and class: it acknowledges they exist while hesitating to condemn those who obtain them. This is why Monk’s confrontation with Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), author of a stereotype-riddled bestseller that Monk despises, feels so ambivalent. Sintara defends the representational validity of a book like We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, then quickly backtracks: What’s so wrong with giving the market what they want? All this waffling could be resolved if Monk and Sintara could just come out and say what they’re both thinking: sometimes folks just want to make some money. And sometimes playing on white insecurities is a great way to secure the bag.

Read More: R.F. Kuang on Olivia Rodrigo and the Impossible Pressure to Stay a Prodigy

Alas, American Fiction fizzles out when it returns to easy humor satirizing its own form. In the novel, the Ellison family’s simmering dysfunctions come to a head in an awful confrontation at Lorraine’s wedding. Monk’s mother’s Alzheimer’s makes her vicious, and the class divisions between the Ellisons and Lorraine—who they’ve always spoken of as “family”—become explicit. The film smooths over the wedding, rewriting it as a loving, harmonious moment. Everyone is dancing and smiling, and no one’s asking questions about Monk’s money. The film wants its protagonist and his family to remain safely likable. The book was much bolder in showing how the Ellisons could be sympathetic and vulnerable and callous and cruel all at once.

In American Fiction, Monk and his agent discuss how white readers don’t want books to tell them the truth; they want to feel absolved. A parallel patronizing is going on in the adaptation from book to film. White movie audiences don’t want to think carefully about race and class, they want to watch feel-good punch-downs against a certain breed of white liberals that we’ve all been making fun of on Twitter for years. But when the joke is told, and the laughter’s died down, what story do we tell next?

R.F. Kuang is the best-selling author of the Poppy War trilogy, Babel: An Arcane History, and Yellowface. She is a member of the 2023 TIME100 Next list.

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