Kenny Leon’s “American Son” opens with a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” This quote serves as the key for much of the narrative for the stage-play-turned-movie. Similar to 2016's “Fences,” “American Son” relies on one set design in order to enunciate the message the story conveys.
Starring Kerry Washington in a less-than presidential main role than she’s played in nearly a decade, the film portrays panicked mother, Kendra Ellis-Connor, as she begs and bouts with morally-stiff law enforcement, Officer Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) and Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee), to find out the whereabouts of her missing bi-racial adult son, Jamal. The intensity grows thick when Ellis-Connor’s estranged husband Scott (Steven Pasquale) arrives and begins deflecting the situation to his disapproval of Jamal’s recent behavior, including getting cornrows, befriending troubled inner-city kids and acquiring a seemingly anti-police bumper sticker. All of this, fueled by their unwieldy marital strain, results in a 4 a.m. monologue session in which they put themselves in the other’s shoes.
The racial tension comes out of the gate swinging with obvious figurative finger-pointing on both sides. The exchanges between Ellis-Connor and Larkin feel more like a debate gone wrong than dialogue in a movie. While this use of action phrases may be effective live on stage, they require a bit more direction for a feature film. In addition, the film puts a character exposé of Larkin out far too early, so much so that the rest of his actions read like a broken record. It’s a reiteration of the racist antagonist we’ve all seen before.
On the other hand, Washington and Pasquale do a good job playing concerned parents from opposite sides of the tracks. The former, in a relatively new role, gives one of her best film performances in recent years. The chemistry between the two may be patchy, but their dialogue on interracial marriages makes up for it.
Stokes enters about two-thirds through film and starts a conversation about compromise and submission within the black community. Stokes says, “If the young brothers would have just shut their mouths and did what they were told, none of us would be here tonight…” Stoke’s words are an echo of how the world feels African Americans should respond to authority, yet they are still killed during routine traffic stops on a regular basis. The film closes on a note that feels incomplete in a sense that it feels like time wasted, as if all of the yelling and screaming of the four characters is for nothing. However, it surely makes up for this in progressive social dialogue.
“American Son” is a heart-heavy display of the agony black mothers face when sending their children out into the world. It gets off to a slow start and features some awkward performances, yet it is able to meticulously dissect issues of racial profiling, interracial marriage and police brutality in a less than 90-minutes window. By the time it’s over, that feeling of pity and sorrow will be sitting in the room with you.
Rating: 3 out 5
Watch the trailer for “American Son” here.