Jeffrey Wright is just one of those actors that immediately improves whatever he happens to be in, and in whatever capacity.
He’s been a go to supportive actor for some time, from his role as Mr Lies in the award-winning Angels in America, to playing Felix Leiter in a few of Bond films (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and No Time to Die), playing Valentin Narcisse in the excellent Boardwalk Empire, as well as Bernard in Westworld.
Finally he gets the opportunity to take centre stage in a sharply written motion picture, and he simply revels in it.
Working as a professor in literature is Thelonious “Monk” Ellison. He got the job mainly through being a published author, but it’s been some years since his last book, and the faculty suggest he should take some time off.
This soon finds Monk on the other side of the country, in the family home in Boston, which he’s not thrilled about returning to. His family situation soon spirals out of control, keeping him there longer than anticipated, which allows him to actually start writing again.
Before he knows it, he’s written a book, which he thinks is terrible, but deliberately so. It’s his response to the growing demand for black stories written by black authors, which he doesn’t identify himself being a part of, instead simply a writer of stories period.
The joke kind of backfires however, when his book, written under a pseudonym, becomes hot property in the publishing world.
This then sees Monk having to juggle an increasingly tangled family life with having to promote a possible bestselling novel that he despises.
With the recent releases of this, The Holdovers and All of Us Strangers, there may well be a welcome trend setting; that of films for a more adult palette to enjoy. Don’t get us wrong, the superhero phase was all well and dandy – for a time – but the lacklustre performances at the box office for more recent releases may be an indication that their reign is coming to an end. And despite the odd entry, we can’t help but feel a wave of relief.
That might well mean that films like this may once again flourish.
It’s made all the more remarkable for being the debut of its director and writer Cord Jefferson. It’s an extremely layered affair, offering themes such as family and race, delivered with a lightness of touch, as well as with a lot of heart.
And central to its success is Wright himself; to be fair, he doesn’t deviate much from what we have seen of him in the past, offering a quietly spoken character study of a troubled man. And yet he has more freedom on the big screen, to express himself, albeit in a nuanced fashion, embracing being a leading man, and rising to the challenge.
Jefferson has written a beautiful tender and intelligent script, based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, that is truly deserving of its Oscar nomination.
Much like the main protagonist’s desire to be seen not as a black writer writing black stories, and rather just a writer of stories who also happens to be black, the same could be said about the film itself, which encompasses many universal themes, with a cast that happens to be black.
It’s smart without being arrogant, heartfelt without being over-sentimental.
The fact is Wright is outstanding, as he always is, in an incredible debut that deserves to be seen.