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The 2023 edition of the Philadelphia Film Festival kicked off last weekend with two very different films, both exploring which stories about people of color in America are told and which are not.
The first, the festival’s opening-night film, was American Fiction, the directorial debut of journalist-turned-TV-writer-turned-filmmaker Cord Jefferson, who was on hand at the Philadelphia Film Center for the premiere on Thursday night. A sharp satire that both draws real blood and is very, very funny, American Fiction is one of the best films of the year.
Expert, specific, and timely
Written by Jefferson, who adapted Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, American Fiction has something very, very specific to say and says it while remaining entertaining and hilarious throughout. A satire of both American race relations and the literary world, American Fiction expertly takes the things Everett was referencing more than two decades ago and makes them specific to the present day.
Spike Lee’s 2000 movie Bamboozled applied a similar premise to a young Black TV producer who creates an actual modern-day minstrel show to great acclaim, but the execution here is much better.
Jeffrey Wright, in a rare leading role, stars in American Fiction as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a college professor whose literary ambitions are continually thwarted. The issue, according to his agent (John Ortiz), is that publishers want a “Black book”—one full of urban crime, violence, and misery—and he has no interest in delivering that. He finds himself resenting author Sintara Golden, an Oberlin College grad who has written a novel called We’s Lives in the Ghetto.
Eventually, in a nod to the obsession of “selling out” that was in line with the ethos of the time the novel was published, Monk decides to write just such a book under an assumed identity. Other subplots have Monk caring for his dementia-stricken mother, dealing with his ne’er-do-well, newly un-closeted brother (a fantastic Sterling K. Brown), and landing on a committee handing out a literary prize. He also romances a local woman, played by Philadelphia High School for Girls alumna Erika Alexander.
The film’s big thesis, as reiterated by Jefferson in the Q&A, was that there is room for many different kinds of Black fictional stories, well beyond those involving crime and death.
Beyond that, the film’s satirical targets are plentiful, but its sharpest barbs are aimed at white people, specifically in literature and academics, and specifically their post-George Floyd behavior. There’s everything from condescension to cluelessness to a guy just coming out and admitting that they’re adding Monk to a committee because they need the diversity.
Good discourse, guaranteed
Jefferson, who said on stage at the Film Center that he had never directed anything before, not even television, proves adept at everything from pacing to shot compositions. There’s one great moment when a woman stands up and suddenly obscures Monk. Another scene in which the awards board makes their final decision makes sense on about three different levels.
The film leads up to an ending that seems to find inspiration everywhere, from Robert Altman’s The Player to Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, not to mention those of Wayne’s World and the great 2021 Romanian film Bad Luck Banging, Or: Loony Porn.
An incisive and very funny film, I expect American Fiction to lead to some truly fascinating discourse when it arrives in theaters in December.
A positive Philly spotlight
Another Philadelphia Film Festival film that embraces the positive and joyful is Stand Up & Shout: Songs from a Philly High School, which was directed by area native Amy Schatz and executive produced by EGOT winner and UPenn alum John Legend, who appeared at the film’s world premiere at Philadelphia Film Center on Friday night. It’s a project of Legend’s production company, Get Lifted Film Company.
The documentary, which runs for a little less than an hour, follows a special music project at Hill-Freedman World Academy in Mt. Airy. A group of 10th graders team up with musicians to create an album, including the writing, recording, and performing of songs. Some even make music videos, including a great one in which four young men dress as a boy band.
These students may not end up pursuing music professionally, but some of them are clearly very talented, and even more of them have found confidence and purpose through this project. Along with Legend and his team, several of the subjects of the film attended the premiere, plus Eagles tackle Jordan Mailata.
There are other places to see more harrowing stories of Philadelphia, including one documentary in this year’s festival, Kyra Knox’s Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia, which deeply explores the city’s gun violence crisis. Tigre Hill’s recent Paramount+ series, 72 Seconds in Rittenhouse Square, took a 360-degree look at a high-profile recent homicide trial and what it said about the many fault lines in the city.
Stand Up & Shout, though, is an inspiring movie about joy and the power of music. It debuts on the streaming service Max on Tuesday, November 7.
The Philadelphia Film Festival runs through October 29, 2023, at the Philadelphia Film Center, PFS East, and PFS at the Bourse. Here’s the full schedule.
What, When, Where
The 32nd Philadelphia Film Festival. October 19-29, 2023, at the Philadelphia Film Center, 1412 Chestnut Street; PFS East, 125 S 2nd Street; and PFS at the Bourse, 400 Ranstead Street, Philadelphia. $5-$17. (267) 239-2941 or filmadelphia.org.
The Philadelphia Film Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Visit its accessibility page for more information.
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