‘American Son’ is too performative to be a cautionary tale

Kerry Washington saves Netflix drama

kerry

Kerry Washington, pictured in 2018 at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, leads a small cast in the new Netflix drama "American Son."

Courtesy Nan Palmero

Based on the 2018 Broadway theater production of the same name, Netflix’s “American Son” tells the story of the forgotten outcome of racial violence — the story of the survivors. With a story shaped by one question — where is Jamal? — and filmed in a set confined to just a single room, actor and director Kenny Leon takes an artistic stance on hopelessness and what it means to be black in America. The ending diverges from that of the Broadway play as we find out what happens to Jamal — he is murdered by an officer when surrendering at a traffic stop with his hands on the hood of the car. 

Kendra Ellis (Kerry Washington) is a black mother seeking to find her teenage son Jamal when he does not come home one night. She is joined by her recently separated husband Scott Connor (Kenny Leon) in a lounge in a Miami police department. They are frantically awaiting information from an unhelpful rookie officer, Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) and the morning liaison officer Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee). 

Leon makes more use of the visual framing and cinematography of the film than he does characterization. The set being just one room adds to the air of uselessness that Kendra and Scott feel as they are confined to a single space in the screen instead of taking to the streets to look for their son. This is one of the few strong points of the film. 

The film lacks necessary nuance as it is based on the theatrical performance, so there is no subtlety. “American Son” lacks the fine-tuning of someone who has actually experienced racial violence in America. One of the most sinister aspects of racism is that the most harmful actions are usually the most secretive — every racist act in this film is so blatant that it just does not seem authentic. 

However, that just makes what Leon is trying to do more pronounced. Leon takes the image of a black man out of the picture so the audience is forced to confront prejudices they hold, much like the characters in the film. The dialogue the characters have with one another distracts from the purpose of the film. There are plenty of over-dramatized one-liners in particular that detract from the message of the film. During her conversation with the only officer able to tell her the fate of her son, Kendra says, “Well, I guess I just wasn't raised to be a bitter Uncle Tom like you.” Similarly, when Scott and Kendra are discussing Jamal’s change in style, Scott says, “Today it's cornrows, tomorrow he'll be out helping OJ find the real killer.” In these cases, hyperbole is not aiding the message Leon is trying to give to the audience as the focus is taken away from the bigger picture.  

It is almost too easy of a story. Kendra, Scott and Jamal are not the typical family facing discrimination from the police — Kendra has a doctorate, Scott is an FBI agent and Jamal is a student at an affluent prep school. It seems like Leon is trying to set the characters up as an antithesis to “normal” victims of racial violence — to make it that much more surprising. In doing so, he loses the desired effect of proximity to reality as this does not reflect the increased likelihood of facing racial violence for the non-affluent.  

Race is further complicated by what the viewer learns about Jamal’s attempts to disconnect himself from his white parents. It is revealed that Kendra and Scott have attempted to give Jamal a life where he would be able to “overcome” his race, but in reality it only further isolates him. Throughout the entire film, Jamal is never shown on camera. This is obviously an artistic choice in an attempt to force the viewer to tackle their own stereotypes of what a young black man should be like. 

Despite the lack of cohesiveness between the message the director is trying to convey and what the viewer sees on the screen, it still manages to say something compelling about race in America. One thing Leon got right was the concept of the complexity of race. In the opening 20 minutes of the film, Jamal has his identity ravaged by racist stereotypes as his identity is attacked by his father and police officers. They ask Kendra if he has any “street names,” as if to imply that he is some sort of gang member. This goes back to the idea of using blatant racism for a shock value. 

The only thing saving the film from being a complete wash is actress Kerry Washington’s ability to act and convey emotion to the audience. Kendra is the only dynamic character in the film, and it really shows. Had the character been less emotive the film would have been so much worse.   

All in all, this seems like a well intentioned film to highlight how safety is never guaranteed as a minority in America, but it falls short because it does not align with reality. 

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