The debate over Nate Parker’s value as a person may never be conclusively decided (though it may seem otherwise in the court of public opinion), but the debate over Nate Parker’s value as a filmmaker has just been settled once and for all: He doesn’t have any. An unsolicited coda to a career that most of us assumed was already over, “American Skin” is an asinine and self-serving call to action that tries to hide its basic incompetence behind a veil of righteous fury.
That seems to be Parker’s only move. “The Birth of a Nation,” which became the most expensive Sundance acquisition of all time before the internet got wind of Parker’s involvement in a 1999 rape case, retold the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion as a full-throated rallying cry, effectively combining the political sophistication of “Braveheart” with the budget of an indie and the cinematic prowess of a student film. “American Skin” takes that formula a step further.
Here is another blistering film that channels the lucid and unimpeachable frustration of black Americans into a provocative story that openly challenges prevailing notions about the merits of violent resistance. Only this time, Parker’s messaging is even shallower, his budget is even smaller, and his movie — an absurd take on the found-footage genre that assumes the guise of a college thesis documentary — is literally presented as a student film. It’s the kind of head-smacking misfire that a more talented storyteller wouldn’t even know how to make. Regardless of his previous improprieties, Parker deserves to be canceled on artistic grounds alone.
The only thing that “American Skin” has going for it are good intentions. However labored and deafeningly loud Parker is about the pervasive harm of systemic racism, it’s not like no one out there needs to hear it. Quite the opposite. And yet, an unfathomably ham-fisted crash course on the problems of racial profiling — one told with all the subtlety of a “Sesame Street” segment, and none of the same grace; the violence of a direct-to-VOD Nicolas Cage thriller, and also none of the same grace — doesn’t feel like it’s going to move the needle. In fact, the inanity of the film’s premise only serves to diminish the pain and the urgency that Parker is trying to dramatize. If “American Skin” asks us to separate the art from the artist, then it must also invite us to separate the movie from its message.
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Of course, separating the art from the artist is easier than it sounds in a movie where said artist appears in almost every frame. As with “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker didn’t only write and direct “American Skin,” he stars in it too, playing an Iraq War vet named — wait for it — Lincoln Jefferson. Linc (as his friends call him) is a good man. He’s smart, he’s decent, and he proudly served a country that has never served him back. He’s also helpless and at the end of his rope after a grand jury declines to convict the police officer who shot and killed his 14-year-old son Kajani during a traffic stop in a white part of town.
“American Skin” opens with tense dash and body-cam footage from the night in question; it’s clear that Kajani isn’t a threat, but his insistence upon (legally) recording the officers with his phone sparks a tension that soon turns violence. It’s a fitting prologue for a movie that sees the mass dissemination of digital video — especially those directed by Nate Parker — as an invaluable tool in the fight against oppression.
That point is hammered home (again and again and again) when the action jumps forward to a year later, and a college student named Jordin (Shane Paul McGhie) shows up at Linc’s house with a film crew in tow. He’s making his college thesis about Linc’s ordeal, and everything we see in “American Skin” — from the film leader before the first shot to the slates that pop up throughout — is presented as a rough assembly cut of Jordin’s documentary. Why does Jordin have so much footage of himself sitting in the editing room and watching his own movie? It’s unclear. Even by the found footage genre’s low standards of logic, “American Skin” makes some very special choices.
Judging by Henry Jackman’s mournful and melodramatic horn score, it seems like this is shaping up to be an intimate rendering of a tragically familiar tale. The writing is streaked with the same kind of holy clumsiness that once made “7th Heaven” such a hit, but Parker radiates enough raw earnestness to make it work. Whatever his failings as a person, he’s always been an innately charismatic screen presence (go watch “Beyond the Lights”). That warmth, however, has its limits.
One flashback, captured by the camera on his son’s computer, finds Linc lecturing Kajani and his friend about the sad reality of what can happen when cops interact with black citizens. Kajani, who’s been raised with pride and integrity, doesn’t understand why he should act visibly submissive even when the police violate his rights. It’s a potentially affecting moment — a horrible conversation that millions of black Americans have to have with their kids — but Parker dilutes its power by turning the scene into a sermon.
There’s a reason why teenagers don’t respond to long-winded speeches, but Parker always lacks the patience for actual drama; he’d rather shout from a pulpit than incept an actual thought into anyone’s head. Kajani, meanwhile, becomes the first of many characters to get flattened into a two-dimensional construct; in a film where everyone is reduced to the most basic of archetypes (e.g. the crying mother, the dough-brained white cop, a motley crew of criminals whose hard exteriors hide great wisdom), Kajani is nothing more than the idea of a kid. Not in a million years could Parker name a single thing the character keeps in the “Hot Memes” folder he keeps on his desktop.
But “American Skin” doesn’t really go off the rails until a few minutes later, when Parker shifts into maximum overdrive and things go absolutely, unbelievably, is-this-really-happening? nuts. Jordin wants to make a movie? Okay, Linc will give him a movie. Without any warning to the 21-year-old documentarian, Linc and his war buddies strap themselves into kevlar vests, unpack a massive arsenal of machine guns, and storm the police station where Kajani’s killer has just been reinstated. The plan: Take everyone hostage, and force them — at gunpoint — to give Officer Mike Randall (Beau Knapp) the fair trial the American justice system wouldn’t. The inmates present will serve as jurors. If they vote not guilty, Linc will let Officer Randall go. If they vote to convict, well… Linc will get to even the score. “Whatever you do,” he says to Jordin and his crew, “don’t stop filming.”
From there, the rest of “American Skin” feels equal parts Frank Capra and Tommy Wiseau. The police officers in the precinct defend themselves with all the nuance of Fox News pundits (Parker plays all the hits, including crowd favorites like “I don’t see color!,” “rap is the real problem!” and “how can we possibly be racist if our chief is black!?”), while Parker dismantles their arguments at the top of his lungs. The cops can’t be thought of as straw men, because too many people actually believe these things, but the back-and-forth is so chintzy and didactic that you almost start to question if that’s really possible.
The whole movie is like a bad allegory that Parker forgot to make allegorical, as everyone is so handcuffed to their types that not even a hint of actual drama can take root. Parker and Knapp cry their eyes out, but “American Skin” exists in such a ridiculous vacuum that even its most salient points about political violence — especially as it exists at the intersection between individual humanity and institutional hatred — aren’t given the oxygen they need to reach whatever viewers need to hear them.
And while it’s convenient that much of the sloppy, overwrought filmmaking in “American Skin” can be excused by the found footage conceit (Jordin, by default, cannot be a better director than Parker), that isn’t much consolation while you’re watching it. It certainly doesn’t excuse the movie’s well-lit, low-angle obsession with Linc, who’s positioned as a symbol for centuries of pain and suffering, and shares Parker’s melodramatic flair for galaxy brain provocations. Even without his checkered past, Parker’s insistent self-focus would seem vain. It would still lead you to wonder why he didn’t just make an actual documentary about anti-black police brutality; it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of tragic stories to choose from. There just isn’t necessarily any room for Nate Parker in them.
The only justification comes at the end, when Parker reaffirms the idea that the world needs to hear Linc’s story. Looking directly into the camera lens, he insists that sometimes the message is so important that the messenger doesn’t matter; that people need to see this movie, regardless of who made it. Wouldn’t that be convenient. It’s true that a lot of people need to hear what “American Skin” has to say. But at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if Nate Parker is a bad person or just a bad filmmaker — the way he says things, nobody is ever going to listen.
“American Skin” premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.