The Latest vs. the Greatest: ‘American Fiction’ (2023) vs. ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ (1947)

The Latest vs. the Greatest: ‘American Fiction’ (2023) vs. ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ (1947)

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), in “American Fiction.” (Amazon, MGM Studios)

Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

4/2/2024

Updated: 4/2/2024

Commentary
I recently wrote an article on whether awards shows like the Oscars are worth any attention. I concluded that they are valuable indications of trends in entertainment and in society. Of course, I watch very few new releases in their entirety myself because I don’t consider them good entertainment. In fact, there are very few movies made during the last several years if not decades which I can wholeheartedly recommend watching.
Nevertheless, not everyone feels this way. Many people have little to no knowledge of classic movies, since they never watch anything besides the latest releases. They usually don’t have anything against old movies. They just haven’t developed an appreciation for these great films. This is often because they’ve never really watched a classic movie, at least not the right one. I think anyone can become a classic film fan if he finds the right film.
The purpose of the series “The Latest vs. the Greatest” is to encourage people to watch classic films by comparing them with recent releases that have similar themes or plots. Coming back to the Oscars, seeing the list of nominees for the top awards made me realize that there were many major films last year which I didn’t cover in this series. For instance, one of the Best Picture nominees, “American Fiction,” has a unique and surprisingly rational premise.
Cord Jefferson, winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay award for “American Fiction”, at the 96th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif., on March 10, 2024. (Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)

Cord Jefferson, winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay award for “American Fiction”, at the 96th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif., on March 10, 2024. (Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)

The Latest

“American Fiction” was written, co-produced, and directed by Cord Jefferson in his directorial debut. It was based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” which Jefferson adapted into a screenplay. Other producers on the project were Ben LeClair, Nikos Karamigios, and Jermaine Johnson. The production companies were MRC, T-Street, Almost Infinite, and 3-Arts Entertainment; MGM’s Orion Pictures purchased the film’s worldwide global distribution rights, and it became the first Orion film to be distributed through Amazon MGM Studio Distribution. After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2023, “American Fiction” had a limited theatrical release in the United States on December 15.
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is an intellectual black writer and professor in Los Angeles whose novels have performed poorly because he they aren’t “black enough,” according to his publishers. After his university places him on temporary leave because he refuses to pander to students’ overly-sensitive racial notions, he writes a satirical novel called “My Pafology.” It’s a complete farce intended to mock the stereotypes expected of successful books by black writers, such as gangs, drugs, and coarse language. To his amazement, the publishers love it, and his agent (John Ortiz) convinces him to create a persona for the book’s author, convict on the run Stagg R. Leigh. The bitter joke gets out of hand as “Stagg” is being offered a huge movie deal, which he tries unsuccessfully to sabotage. As Monk ends up judging his own book at a literary award show, he gets a closer look at what drives other writers to pen the “blaxploitation” literature that thrives. Meanwhile, he is dealing with his mother’s (Leslie Uggams) increasing illness, strife with his siblings, and a blossoming romance with a lawyer, Coraline (Erika Alexander).
“American Fiction” has gained high critical acclaim so far. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay for Cord Jefferson; he won the same award at the BAFTAs. It’s surprising that this film has fared so well at the mainstream awards shows, considering its themes. As one IMDb reviewer aptly pointed out, it is being lauded by the very people whom it mocks for their patronizing pandering to racial stereotypes. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting and revealing premise which reminds me of a classic film, “Gentleman’s Agreement” from 1947.
(L–R) Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), and Professor Fred Lieberman (Sam Jaffee) in “Gentleman’s Agreement.” (MovieStillsDB)

(L–R) Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), and Professor Fred Lieberman (Sam Jaffee) in “Gentleman’s Agreement.” (MovieStillsDB)

The Greatest

“Gentleman’s Agreement” was based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Laura Z. Hobson. Originally published as a serial in Cosmopolitan magazine, this powerful examination of antisemitism quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Ironically, this film attracted the interest of Darryl F. Zanuck, one of the few studio moguls who wasn’t Jewish. His Jewish colleagues in Hollywood, such as Samuel Goldwyn, tried to dissuade him from producing the controversial picture, fearing that it would “stir up trouble.” Nevertheless, he persisted, assigning Elia Kazan to direct the picture, which would be nominated for eight Academy Awards and ended up winning for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm.
Philip Green (Gregory Peck) is a widowed journalist who moves to New York City with his young son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), and mother (Anne Revere). A magazine publisher, John Minify (Albert Dekker), assigns him to write an article on antisemitism in America. Philip doesn’t think that he is qualified to write the piece, as a Gentile, until he thinks of a fresh angle. He decides to present himself as a Jew for a while to experience the challenges and prejudice firsthand. Around the same time, he starts dating Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire), Minify’s niece. Although she first suggested the topic for the article, she is shocked by Phil’s plan. Minify gives Phil an office at the magazine, but no one else knows that he is just pretending to be Jewish. When his Jewish secretary, Elaine Wales (June Havoc), commiserates with him about having to change her name to get a job with the company, he begins to realize just how deep-seated prejudice can be. The most surprising bigot he discovers is Kathy, who says she believes in equality for Jews but doesn’t want her friends to think she is engaged to one. Meanwhile, Phil’s Jewish childhood pal, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), comes to stay with the Greens after returning from World War II service, and Phil sees how shallow his experience will always be compared to Dave.
These movies have some similar themes, since they both deal with the hot-topic prejudice of the day. The older film dealt with antisemitism as World War II, Nazism, and the Holocaust had brought the issue of prejudice against Jews into open discussion, while the new movie addresses the stereotypes people expect from black authors and their literature. The protagonist of both movies is a scholarly writer who explores and confronts prejudice by posing as someone he isn’t. Of course, Phil is a Gentile who pretends to be Jewish, while Monk is actually a black man, but he pretends to be the sort of ghetto convict people would have expected to write a book like “My Pafology.” Both gentlemen have budding romances with women whom they meet during the film. Both relationships are soured when the author is disturbed by his sweetheart’s reaction to his literary project. Phil is disturbed to discover prejudice in Kathy’s viewpoint, and Monk is upset that Coraline likes his stereotypical book, which she doesn’t realize he wrote. Through his experiments, each man realizes that the topic of prejudice, stereotypes, and bias isn’t as cut and dry as he previously thought.
Theatrical poster for "American Fiction." (Amazon, MGM Studios)

Theatrical poster for "American Fiction." (Amazon, MGM Studios)

Tainted by Vulgarity

“American Fiction” has a strong message which is surprisingly not “woke.” Although Hollywood has been pushing a Black Lives Matter narrative for years, that isn’t the point of this film. In fact, it appears to criticize the pandering, patronizing, and inherently racist idea behind the whole BLM movement. However, it’s rated R “for language throughout, some drug use, sexual references and brief violence.” The poignant message is sadly tainted by the vulgar content.
In contrast, “Gentleman’s Agreement” deals with tough topics in a mature, intelligent way which is clean and wholesome enough for viewers of all ages to watch. That’s because it was made during Hollywood’s Golden Era of the Production Code Administration (PCA), 1934 to 1954, when Joseph I. Breen enforced the Motion Picture Production Code as head of the PCA. It forbade profanity, excessive violence, vulgarity, and graphic immorality. Nevertheless, the movies were entertaining and artistic without inappropriate content.
What do you think about movies which deal with racial prejudice?
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Tiffany Brannan

Tiffany Brannan

Author

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.

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