Review
Culture
Film & 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. 

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.