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‘American Skin’: Nate Parker’s Police Violence Drama Isn’t Subtle, But Maybe That’s the Point

The film may as well be titled "For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Vigilantism When Kneeling for the Anthem Isn’t Enough."

Nate Parker and Spike Lee

Nate Parker and Spike Lee at the 76th Venice Film Festival

CLAUDIO ONORATI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Nate Parker’s “American Skin” is a requiem on police violence and black trauma that clearly has no intention of having a nuanced conversation on the issues at its core. It’s a film that is plainly fed up with attempting to have a discussion at all — if only because, in real life, dialogue hasn’t led to substantive change: Black men and boys continue to be killed by police officers at a much higher rate than any other group, and huge racial disparities in how police use force continue to exist.

Parker clearly knows who his audience is, and who it isn’t — white people. But maybe that’s the point. It’s not so much that the movie aims to serve as a conduit for discourse, as much as it hopes to give its viewers  — a restive black populace, frustrated with a country that refuses to reconcile with its historical and continuous violation of black bodies – a new hero to cheer. In the wake of its Venice International Film Festival premiere, “American Skin” has yet to find a U.S. distributor, but it has unmistakable appeal to an underserved market.

Parker’s approach to these issues is an unapologetically militant, albeit heavy-handed and even topsy-turvy response. But it will strongly resonate with many in its core viewership, regardless of the film’s artistic merits. For them, it’s “Network” newsman Howard Beale screaming, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore,” because, “my life has value!”

In “American Skin,” black father and veteran Linc Johnson (Parker) has experienced the worst of war overseas, only to return to fight a war at home because of the color of his skin. Linc’s first hurdle comes when he sees his son, Kajani (Tony Espinosa), unceremoniously shot to death by a white police officer (Beau Knapp). A year later, after a trial, the guilty cop is cleared of all charges (which, of course happens in real life all the time). As a result, a devastated father, further emotionally impaired by the murders of other young black boys and men, takes matters into his own hands in the most unexpected of ways. And all of it is captured by a student filmmaker (Shane Paul McGhie), who initially sought to make his graduate thesis film about Kajani’s death, and finds himself — with his two-man crew in tow — becoming an involuntary witness to an increasingly volatile scenario.

That scenario unfolds with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It’s a manipulative premise that suggests the solution to one kind of violence is a retaliatory violence. And while vigilantism might be generally frowned upon, it’s a response that black Americans have occasionally had to consider since the days of slavery (themes that were central to Parker’s “Birth of a Nation”), in order to reclaim their humanity, or, at the very least, make an urgent statement. Racial uprisings from the Civil Rights era through today have sometimes lead to violent responses. And any depiction of this reality onscreen is one that will probably resonate with black people. After all, audiences cheered movie anti-heroes like Charles Bronson in the vigilante action movie franchise “Death Wish” (1974), among others.

There’s a good reason why a bold racial provocation like “Get Out” was so embraced by black audiences, for whom the film was pure catharsis. Images of a black man gruesomely slaughtering an entire white family — no matter how justified — are still considered radical. But for a new generation of black viewers, it was like their own “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Parker’s “American Skin” certainly isn’t “Get Out,” but it could have a similar resonance.

To be sure, “American Skin” is flawed. It’s an angry movie driven by the urgency of its message, and at times juggles its themes with a clunky approach: Many of the debates that are often too on-the-nose, and the script feel more like an early draft based on a provocative idea that’s equal parts “John Q,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “12 Angry Men.” But for its target audience, who are fed up with incremental solutions for a catastrophic problem, it might work as a kind of populist fantasy. Unlike other recent films that have tackled police violence in African American communities, including “The Hate U Give” and “Monsters and Men,” which gently prod, “American Skin” goes for the jugular.

But Parker doesn’t go far enough. The film takes the jarring tonal shift after its first act, and it’s an unrealistic — if not entirely implausible — director. He thrusts the audience into a fantastical scenario, only to eventually succumb to a more realistic sentimentality. “American Skin” is good enough at showing its potential: It’s almost a forceful study of a man becoming unglued after the murder of his son, carrying out an act of public and deadly revenge that leads to martyrdom and revolution. And even if it doesn’t quite get there, the message resonates all the same.

Americans are socialized to believe that they live in a society that upholds respect for the law; that the Constitution protects individual freedom, and the branches of government are there to enforce the laws fairly, through democratic processes. But for these ideals haven’t historically been applied to black people. White racist violence, which the country has increasingly seen under the current administration, continues to terrorize black Americans (and other marginalized groups), with little hindrance.

“American Skin,” however heavy-handedly, recognizes the irony in America’s association with violence as a behavior almost exclusive to black people, while overlooking the depths of violence generated by white racism. It blames the country’s political leadership, educational institutions, and mass media for a population that isn’t educated about the oppressive social conditions that can result in the kind of desperate, seemingly absurd and fanciful action taken by the film’s protagonist. But it’s not any more outlandish than the very real, high-profile deadly attacks around the world that have been committed by primarily white men motivated by white nationalist conspiracy theories.

“American Skin” priorities the internal frustrations and even fantasies of black Americans, and it should resonate with its core audience. They’re likely to overlook its flaws and appreciate its rebellious sentiments — much like its namesake. Parker’s title nods to Bruce Springsteen’s 2001 protest song “American Skin (41 Shots),” which is about Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant who was killed in his New York City doorway when police shot him 41 times, after mistaking his wallet for a gun. The performances of the song resulted in protests by the New York City Police Department, who saw it as an attack on them. Springsteen has stressed that the song is not anti-police, but an attempt to present every point of view, including that of the policemen. Parker’s film is made in a similar spirit, although his sympathies are clearly with the powerless.

It’s also maybe a shot across the bow. And while it should reach a wide enough segment of its target audience, it would be unwise to ignore its potential influence in a world gone mad. When even peaceful protests of police violence face condemnation, and the victims feel unheard, that suppression can become hostile. The film, which won the Sconfini Section Prize for Best Film at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, may as well be titled “For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Vigilantism When Kneeling for the Anthem Isn’t Enough.”

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