“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame,” a young Langston Hughes proclaimed in an essay nearly 100 years ago. “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter.”
Seeking to establish his autonomy as a Black writer, he concluded, “If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
I thought a lot about Hughes’s landmark 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” after watching how Ava DuVernay’s “Origin” and Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” explore the fates of Black writers who push back against political and publishing pressures to focus exclusively on racism in their works.
Like Hughes, the protagonists of these movies — the journalist Isabel Wilkerson and the novelist Thelonious Ellison, known as Monk — strive to write as they please. But, by depicting their characters’ struggles, the films offer refreshing commentaries on the social construction of race and its devastating consequences for those at the bottom of the hierarchy.
DuVernay’s historically sweeping “Origin” follows a fictionalized version of Wilkerson (powerfully rendered by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as she conceives her nonfiction best seller “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” (2020) and discovers that hierarchical systems of power — not race — link the oppression of Blacks in the Jim Crow South to Jews in Nazi Germany and Dalits, India’s most oppressed group, formerly called Untouchables.
On the other hand, Jefferson adapted “American Fiction” from Percival Everett’s 2001 satirical novel, “Erasure,” about an experimental fiction writer who refuses to publish books that stereotype Black life as nihilistic and tragic. In protest, the fictional Monk (poignantly played by Jeffrey Wright) spoofs a best seller, “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” by a Black female writer (Issa Rae), anonymously publishing his caricature, “My Pafology.” The result is his most commercially and critically successful book yet.
Despite the films’ disparate sources and settings, it is no coincidence that both are haunted by the killings of innocent, unarmed Black boys by white police officers or everyday citizens. In “Origin,” Trayvon Martin’s tragic death at the hands of George Zimmerman motivates Isabel’s editor, Amari Selvan (Blair Underwood), to ask her to write about it. She balks partly because she is on hiatus to take care of her mother but also because she is uncertain if the assumption of Zimmerman’s racist bias is the only explanation for his actions.
“You’re saying the man isn’t racist?” Amari probes.
She responds: “Not that he isn’t racist. I’m wondering why everything is racist.”
Her skepticism encourages her to dig deeper — traveling across continents and time periods — and eventually to find her answer in a global history of caste systems. The 17-year-old Martin (Myles Frost) is a recurring figure here, seeking shelter from the rain with Zimmerman following near the movie’s beginning and appearing again after she completes the book.
Monk never formally names Martin or Michael Brown when his agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), tells him that another publisher has passed on his book proposal because they are confused about what his reworking of “The Persians” — the Greek tragedy by Aeschlyus — has to do with the African American experience.
“They want a Black book,” Arthur tells him.
Monk retorts, “They have one. I’m Black and it’s my book.” He adds: “You mean they want me to write about a cop killing some teenager, or a single mom in Dorchester raising five kids.”
Their reticence doubles as critiques of the narrative of race: Isabel believes there must be more to the story, and Monk just wants to be able to write different stories. But for a critic like me, who strives to confront and escape oppression through my prose, these movies also notch another cinematic achievement. In addition to portraying century-long debates between African American authors, their publishers and the general public, the films provide rare insights into the Black writers’ creative process by showcasing the methods, mechanics and single-mindedness that drive them.
Some of the most riveting scenes in each movie combine these two ideas. We witness Isabel visiting archives, conducting interviews and using a whiteboard to sketch out her ideas. All that work underscores the density of her framework. And her efforts to persuade two supportive yet puzzled white publishers of her theory reveal how concise her ideas need to be before she presents them to a general audience.
In the framework of “American Fiction,” a spoof within a satire, we never see Monk working on his newest novel. Instead, we must rely on others — his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) and his girlfriend (Erika Alexander) — to validate his literary talent.
But, in one of the movie’s funniest moments, we see him at work on another work, a parody, and typing the hyperbolic dialogue of his fictional father-son pair, Willy and Van. As Monk sits in his home office, the characters appear alongside him, so we can hear how much he exaggerates their language and how clichéd their plot is. Van ultimately shoots Willy in the stomach after delivering a soliloquy that starts: “I hates this man. I hates my mama. And I hates myself.” Hoping to reveal the absurdity of such writing, Monk publishes it under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh (a play on the real-life 19th-century Black pimp nicknamed Stagger Leigh), and much to his dismay, the book becomes the biggest hit of his career.
Whether Isabel’s or Monk’s arguments ring true to their fellow characters is, in the end, only partly the point. The larger message is in the meta-narratives: By telling nuanced stories of Black writers working out the problem of race onscreen, we better understand the power of racism and its possible undoing. There is promise in these cinematic portraits: We could live in a world beyond racial categories if only we believe it enough to make it so.