Review
Culture
Film and TV
3 min read

What do we want from our stories?

New film release American Fiction satirises storytelling and the expectations placed on authors. Jamie Smith records his reactions to watching the movie.

James K. A. Smith is a philosopher, cultural critic and author. 

A man sitting at a restaurant table turns and looks aside.
Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison aka Stagg R. Leigh.
Orion Productions.

This article was first published on the author’s Substack Quid Amo, December 16 2023. 

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, my wife Deanna and I went to see Cord Jefferson’s new satire, American Fiction, playing in only seven theaters nationwide right now. The film is a smart, beguiling adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel, Erasure

Part of the fun of watching movies in L.A. is being reminded what a company town LA still is. We were slightly puzzled when, as a production company splash screen opened the film, a ripple of hoots and applause bubbled up from the audience. When, at the end of the movie, we saw an entire group video-recording the rolling credits, we realized a production team was in the house, seeing their work on the public screen. 

Watching this particular movie in L.A. was especially entertaining because of its meta commentary on our storytelling industries, including film. The winks & nods about screenwriting, adaptation, and philistine studio executives occasioned knowing guffaws in the audience. 

The movie asks important, uncomfortable questions about the stories that “we” (scare quotes will become obvious in a second) want to hear today, and why. 

What’s supposed to be a farce is embraced by white marketing executives as the latest Black trauma porn for awards season.

The key facet of the plot is relatively simple: a Black novelist (Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, played cagily by Jeffrey Wright) has published several works of deft, critically-celebrated literary fiction. But he can’t sell his latest novel. His agent informs him why: “It’s not Black enough.” The Black novelist is puzzled (“But I’m Black!”) until he wanders into a reading from a new bestseller, the latest by a Black novelist celebrated by some famous white woman’s Book Club. Written in dialect, with flat characters and tired tropes, the novel panders to and perpetrates horrendous stereotypes dusted with a hint of redemption. But it does so with just the right dose of guilt-induction for white readers to feel morally assuaged just by reading the book. The publishing industry has seized upon the mad, pretzeled formula: You can sell a lot of books to white people by offering them the thrill of a little enlightened guilt that actually depends on their continued racist stereotypes. 

In a fit of disgust, rage, and desperation, “Monk” begins banging out just such a novel, determined to play a kind of Sokal-hoax on the publishing industry. Just one problem: the market clamors to buy this dreck and even turn it into a movie. What’s supposed to be a farce is embraced by white marketing executives as the latest Black trauma porn for awards season. You can imagine the comedic possibilities here. It’s a funny movie. 

As a white viewer of this movie, if I laugh at all the right points and get all the inside jokes, am I being offered a little absolution?

But it is also tender. What’s playing out on screen—the story surrounding the creation of the novel’s story—is a very different kind of Black story. Monk, it turns out, is the black sheep only because he’s a PhD in a family of MDs. Here is a Black family with a massive Victorian home in Boston and a beach house on the Cape—which is just to say, they are a family of accomplished professionals like so many others. Are we surprised? Like any human family, of course, their life is not without pain, loss, heartbreak, and animosity. But like any human family, there is also achievement, pride, joy, connection. 

Here’s a Black family. Here’s their story. Is this a “Black story?” Is it “Black enough?” What do we want from our stories? 

Jefferson’s endeavor here is fraught, and he knows it. The last part of the movie “goes meta” as a way to concede that there’s no “clean” way to raise these questions without slipping back into being part of the problem. As a white viewer of this movie, if I laugh at all the right points and get all the inside jokes, am I being offered a little absolution? To his credit, Jefferson never quite lets a viewer like me off the hook. Something about this story will, and should, remain unavailable to me. 

But also to his credit, Jefferson had me thinking of the Roman poet Terence when we walked out of the cinema. Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” Jefferson tells a story that, in this climate, is willing to risk a claim to human solidarity. 

Article
Art
Culture
1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 

 

Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.