‘American Fiction’ Ending Explained & Film Summary: Is Monk Dead Or Alive?


There is a common practice in today’s world to over-appreciate any piece of work, irrespective of its actual standard, as long as it comes as an expression of the minorities in any specific region or society. Very intricately linked to this ceremonial and arguably fake celebration of progressivity are every culture’s established stereotypes about oppressed minorities. The new American satirical comedy-drama film American Fiction, adapted from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” is a sharp attack on this very practice and the particular obsession of white people over narratives that present Blacks simply as representations of the stereotypes attributed to them. Although American Fiction is not necessarily witty, as it does get quite bold and in-your-face at times, the film makes for a hilariously brilliant watch.

Spoiler Alert

Plot Summary: What is the film about?

American Fiction begins with the protagonist of the film, Thelonious Ellison, or Monk, as he is known among family and friends, in the middle of a college lecture. Monk is a writer and novelist, currently working as a college professor in Los Angeles. He looks forward to publishing his next novel after quite a few years’ gap. The lecture is on literature from the Southern United States and naturally involves a deep look into the racist history of the region. A student is irked by having to stare at the N-word written up on the whiteboard all day, and Monk casually jokes that if he, as a Black man, can get over it, then she too can do so. However, such a joke does not go down well with the students or the authorities, and since a series of complaints have already gathered against his name, Monk is fired from the college job. Without really wanting to do so, Monk has to return to his native home in Boston and once again link up with his publishing agent and friend, Arthur.

As Arthur discusses the previously published works of the protagonist, it is clear that although Monk’s books have been critically praised, they have done very bad business, and so publishers are not very convinced by his new novel either. When he asks Arthur why this is the case, he realizes that the publishers do not consider his books to be “Black enough,” meaning that his works do not fit into the racial stereotypes and narrative expectations associated with the Black community. Looking further into the present market, Monk learns of a woman named Sintara Golden, whose book “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” is a massive success among readers and critics. As he attends an event where Golden reads a few excerpts from her work, Monk is baffled to find out that the book is being celebrated only because it adheres to stereotypes against the community. As a response, and also fearing an urgent need for monetary funds, Monk tries his hand at writing something similar.

How does Monk’s plan backfire?

Frustrated and angry at this silly and false appreciation towards the Black community shown by white Americans, Monk decides to write a new manuscript as a joke against this unfair practice. Since his serious and profound works had not sold at all, Monk lets loose and jots down a trashy story about a Black man going through violence, drug-related crimes, and questionable parentage. Taking a cue from Sintara Golden’s use of words, he too makes his characters speak in a coarse and unfiltered manner, and the scene in the manuscript has his protagonist find out about his real biological dad, who had left the family after his birth and then shoots the father dead. Monk’s intention is satirical, making fun of the mainstream American belief that every young Black man has to go through similar struggles to find out about their long-lost fathers and battle against a life of drugs. The scene that plays out inside Monk’s mind takes on a hilarious real projection in American Fiction, suggesting the kind of helplessly cynical mood in which the protagonist writes it. Since the plot is about a young man going through self-realizations while having to care for his mother’s cancer, Monk names it “My Pafology” as a cliched mispronunciation of the word “pathology” or “apology,” made by someone who grew up in a ghetto.

Monk then sends the manuscript to Arthur, telling him to share the piece with publishers as an extension of the joke and to boldly show the white folks how they are only appreciative of stereotypical representations. Although Arthur is initially hesitant to pull off such a stunt, putting their reputation at stake, he does follow the instructions, and Monk’s plan completely backfires. He is notified by his agent that a reputed publishing house, Thompson-Watt, has offered to buy the rights to “My Pafology” for a whopping $750,000. Before submitting the manuscript, Monk had mentioned the name of the writer to be Stagg R. Leigh, and Arthur had appropriately added more coats of paint to the whole lie. The name Stagg R. Leigh is an intentional reference by Monk to the song “Stagger Lee,” which is about a Black man who killed a colleague in 1895. The song was mostly sung in praise of the murderer, Stagger Lee, with his image being that of an ultimate baddie.

To Monk, this particular name becomes relevant because his fake story in “My Pafology” is from the perspective of a man heavily involved in crimes and drugs. Although all of this is a joke to the writer, the agent, Arthur, sees great financial potential in such a project and thus makes a few additions to the information surrounding it. When finalizing the deal with the publishers at Thompson-Watt, Arthur says that the name Stagg R. Leigh is a pseudonym, for the real author cannot reveal his identity as he is an ex-convict. This makes the name even more appropriate and adds to the layers of the joke that Monk is trying to make. The protagonist even puts up a fake voice, an accent that is considered Black enough, and uses cuss words in regular conversations with the representatives to make his persona more convincing.

Monk keeps making use of the very same stereotypes that he is trying to lash out against, hoping and desperately praying that someone will be intelligent enough to get the joke he is making. But sadly for the author, none of the white crowd gets it, including the publishers and even the critics. Right before “My Pafology” is published, Monk decides to change the name of the fake autobiography to the F-word, hoping that this will surely discourage the publishers. But the representatives at Thompson-Watt agree to go along with this cuss-word name as well, knowing well that the shock value itself would sell the books and bring in great profits. A film producer from Hollywood also meets with Monk, or Stagg R. Leigh, as he knows, to discuss buying the rights for a film, as such a film would be highly appreciated by the masses. Therefore, all of Monk’s creative decisions with regards to the book, including the coarse narrative and the insulting title, are hailed as raw and intense choices that represent the real struggles of Blacks in America.

The irony is such that even the FBI apparently tries to look into the Stagg R. Leigh character after he is revealed to be an ex-convict in the media. To make matters worse, Monk is approached by the New England Book Association to be on the panel of judges to determine the year’s literary award, and among the many books that he has to read through, his own book is submitted as a contender. He tries to convince the others that books like these are extremely problematic and exist only to entertain and make white folks feel better. Sintara Golden, who is a fellow judge on the panel, also shares the same perspective on the matter, and Monk is rather surprised by this. Nonetheless, the two Black authors present on the panel cannot convince the three remaining members, all white, that books like these do not represent the real struggle of the Black community. Instead, the three remain convinced that voices from the Black community need to be heard, and therefore, Monk’s fake autobiography is determined to be the winner of the New England Book Association’s Literary Award.

Why does Monk accept the Literary Award?

During the award ceremony, Monk naturally has to be present because he has been part of the judges’ panel. But what comes as a surprise is the man having a change of opinion and walking up to the stage, accepting the award for the book. American Fiction cuts to black at this point and does not show what Monk says on stage, and it is possible that he either reveals the truth to the world or simply takes the award and walks away. This change of opinion is perhaps not as surprising as it initially seems, for despite the fact that the experiences mentioned by Monk in his book were extremely fake, he had often been subjected to instances of racial prejudice.

It is not like these instances, or at least the ones shown in the film, are overtly harmful or directly disrespectful, but they surely highlight the glaring social differences because of one’s race. Very early in the film, Monk hails a cab on the street, and the driver simply ignores him only to stop for a white family some distance away. The reason why Monk was selected to be a judge on the book association panel is also his race, as the organizer mentioned that they needed to support racial diversity and thus saw Monk as most fit to be a judge. It is evident that he does not want his identity to be limited to just his race and instead wants to be judged based on his professional and writing skills. This is why the man removes all of his books from the “African-American” section in the bookstore and places them in the usual “Fiction” part. But it is also true that despite the unfair stereotypes and the fake celebration of these stereotypes, many of the struggles mentioned are true for members of the Black community.

It is also quite apparent that Monk comes from a fairly well-to-do family, most of whom have been doctors, and so his experiences in life have been very different from those of someone growing up in a ghetto. What Monk tries to highlight through his satirical book is the fact that despite his financial upper hand, he has still had to face racism in the country. But through the process of publishing the book, he learns that his desire to question social norms and stereotypes should not be used to play down and ridicule the struggles of many who have had to actually live their lives a certain way. When Monk confronts Golden regarding this matter, stating that her book was also fake and “trauma porn,” essentially selling the story of fake misery, Sintara Golden defends herself, saying that it was all based on real interviews she had conducted. The things she had written in her book were actual incidents that had taken place in the lives of people who had grown up in the ghetto.

It can be argued that Monk is correct in questioning Sintara for writing the novel and collecting praise for it, but he cannot simply mock the stories, which resonate with the real lives of many. At the end of American Fiction, Monk learns that he cannot separate himself from his racial identity and realizes that the best step forward is to own the accolades coming his way. However, he also knows that the world will not appreciate his crude humor, and his career would simply be over if he admitted the joke. The fact of the matter is that the market prefers stereotypical stories over the real truth and will continue to do so, and Monk ultimately has to accept it. When Wiley asks Monk about what he had done in reality, the protagonist states that he had not said anything on stage and had simply walked off with the award.

Does Monk die?

After the award ceremony scene, American Fiction quickly shifts the scene to a film studio, where Monk has been telling this entire story to Wiley, the film producer who had earlier approached him. The part about his own satirical novel having won the Best Book award is actually the ending of the screenplay that Monk had written for Wiley, irrespective of whether it actually happened in his life or not. American Fiction does not make it clear as to which parts actually happen with Monk and which are made up by him in his screenplay, but it seems most likely that the author did go through the experiences mentioned.

Although Wiley thoroughly enjoys the screenplay, he does not like the ending and asks Monk to change it up, following which the protagonist makes a few changes, particularly with regards to his love life. In reality, he had broken up with Coraline after falling out regarding his novel, but Wiley wants to change this ending. Monk changes the story, stating that he ran out of the ceremony to go over to Coraline, apologize to her, and reunite with her. The producer does not like this possibility either and asks for it to be changed again. Monk changes the ending once again, this time to a ridiculous one in which Coraline walks into the ceremony right before the FBI storms in and shoots Monk dead. Wiley obviously finds this ending to be the best one, and he decides to keep it for his film, as it touches upon police brutality and racial discrimination as well.

During American Fiction‘s ending, Monk does not really die, as it is only a satirical ending that he provides to the ignorant filmmaker, and the protagonist simply walks out of the studio, bewildered by how unintelligent people can be.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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