American Son movie review: Netflix's Kerry Washington-starrer exposes the fault lines of a nation
Based on the Broadway play of the same name by Christopher Demos-Brown, Kenny Leon’s American Son seems to have polarised its viewers and critics to a great extent. And not without reason.
Based on the Broadway play of the same name by Christopher Demos-Brown, Kenny Leon’s American Son seems to have polarised its viewers and critics to a great extent. And not without reason, I might add. For one, despite its apparent external garb of being a simple film set in a simple setting, Leon’s film is one of the most complex ones I have had the good fortune of watching in recent times. There are many layers in the story, and what struck me the most was how the film offered valid arguments for both sides of its central debate, thus quickly offending a very large portion of its audience — most of whom had perhaps expected the film to take their side. But like the play itself, Leon’s film steers clear of this conveniently profitable strategy and does what a true work of art always does. It simply explores.
On a stormy night in Miami, a black woman named Kendra Ellis-Connor is waiting at the police station, having reported her teenage son Jamal missing for over eight hours. Kendra is highly educated, holds a PhD, and has spent all her life trying to live the American dream. She has, by her own admittance, taken care to see that her son speaks proper English, and avoids bad company. Her estranged husband — a white FBI officer named Scott Connor of Irish origins — has groomed his son to join Westpoint, after which a career of law enforcement awaits him. This, as Scott explains, is per a long line of family tradition. The only two other characters in the film are a rookie cop, and a senior police lieutenant — neither of whom seem to have any information as to the whereabouts of Jamal. As Kendra and Scott’s patience begins to wear thin, tensions arise in the waiting lounge — mostly centred around the subject of race.
As with several other films based on plays, American Son too is heavily dialogue dependent. It uses dialogues to establish several backstories, and like its protagonist, we feel trapped inside that waiting lounge, with the storm raging on outside the high glass windows. The tension is real, thanks mainly to a series of unwarranted acts of police brutality on black suspects. The film never shies away from referring directly to these incidents, and through a mother’s apprehensions, we can easily see how most of black America feels about their day to day lives, where the important and pertinent issue of white supremacy has left a deep sense of fear and alienation. On countless occasions in the film, we are told how black people need to ‘strategise’ simply in order to stay alive — an act that white people do not seem to have to worry about at all. But the film does not stop there. In the true spirit of exploration, and of studying human nature, it also talks about groundless black victimhood. Are Kendra’s fears, for instance, unfounded? Is the law treating her and her missing son any different from the way it would treat a white man — her husband, for instance? Is a black police officer any less afraid of gun violence in black neighbourhoods than any of his white colleagues? These are questions that are beautifully addressed in the film.
There are also several other forms of interactions at play here. The fact that a white father has walked out on his black wife and black teenage son for a white woman is just one of them. The fact that there are two cops in the station that night, the white one being nice to a black woman, and the black one playing by the rule books irrespective of the colour of his suspect’s skin is another. The angst that Jamal (who is never seen on screen) seems to have developed after coming to terms with his own identity is a third one — and one that is of particular significance, because his own father is not only white, but a white cop, who has dreams of making him a cop. These are not simple interactions, if you think about it for a second. But what struck me as astonishingly remarkable is the way they have been dealt with in a 90-minute film. There are no solutions offered, the film simply explores what is going on in a country that is considered the most powerful nation in the world. The fragility of the American dream, the futility of traditions, the fear amidst the people — both black and white — present a rather sorry picture of a country that is often seen as the promised land, but one that seems to be breaking apart from the inside.
The film retains its entire cast — lean as it is — from the Broadway play. I dare you to take your eyes off Kerry Washington for one second — yes, she is that good. Every gasp, every breathless stutter, every expression of fear in her eyes is real, and it is easy to see her frustration and angst at the system that is failing her at every step. While Washington clearly shoulders the play and is its lead attraction, Steven Pasquale does a commendable job too. When he makes his first appearance in the film, he is this smug, aggressive FBI officer, who has everything under control. But as the film progresses, you begin to see how brittle and weak he truly is. This clearly symbolic portrait of white law enforcement is another salient feature of the film that needs to be extolled. Jeremy Jordan and Eugene Lee play their roles of the two cops to perfection. Lee, in particular, deserves a special mention, because his role is the briefest and yet he gives a performance that I will remember for a very long time.
The performances aside, the best part of the film is the writing. A simple scene involving a watercooler is so good, so meaningful and so potent, I could literally watch the whole film again, just to watch that one scene. In another scene involving an arrest, you will fill the frustration of every single actor in the film — all at the same time, in the same frame, even. You will wish that somehow, the never-ending cycle of angst and hatred that began centuries ago, could somehow be resolved. You will realise how the oppression may have ended, but the embers of deep-rooted hatred are still burning on both sides, just below the surface of civility — slowly, but surely. There is a lot to take away from the writing here, in the sense that a film this short could give us so many messages in so effective and so hard-hitting a manner as to leave you dazed by the end of it.
I strongly recommend you watch American Son. I assure you that you are going to keep thinking about this film for a very long time.
American Son is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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