It’s likely that “American Son,” based on the Broadway play by Christopher Demos-Brown, was written earnestly, although it seems content to revel in its seeming relevance over telling a rigorously workshopped story. It’s hoping that audiences will be so overwhelmed by the gravity of its subject matter – the unjustified killings of black men at the hands of often white police officers who are typically held unaccountable – that they won’t notice the flatness of the characters and how superficial and agonizingly manipulative their ostensibly strained debates are on the intersectionality of racism, class, police violence, and injustice. It’s made for audiences who have nothing more than a rudimentary understanding of these issues, but in 2019, it feels like a work out of time.
The Netflix television event tells the story of Kendra Ellis-Connor (Kerry Washington), the mother of a missing teenager, as she struggles to put the pieces together in a South Florida police station.
In the first act, Kendra frantically checks her cell phone in the police station waiting room during the early hours of a dark, stormy morning. Her 18-year-old son Jamal (who is never seen nor heard) has been gone since the night before, and she’s obviously concerned. It doesn’t help that he isn’t answering her calls or text messages. But Kendra tries to maintain some calm, while she awaits answers from condescending junior police officer, Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), and also for her husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale), to arrive.
There’s immediate friction between Kendra and officer Larkin, who seems entirely ignorant of his general dismissiveness of her and her demands for some accountability. Needless to say, Kendra is a black woman – a psychology professor – and Paul is a white cop. It’s clear from his elementary questions for a palpably distraught Kendra, that the young officer is, if not outright racist, too dense to see past his own gender and racial biases in what is depicted as a rather unnerving situation that screams for sensitivity.
As the inquiry progresses, becoming increasingly tense (“Does Jamal have a street name?” Larkin asks, to Kendra’s, and the audience’s, chagrin), bits and pieces of Jamal’s life are revealed. In brief, he’s a good kid. Provided with the best education his well-to-do, now-separated parents could afford, he was raised to believe that, despite his brown skin, he can enjoy all the privileges that are innate to the mostly white kids he grew up around as long he earns them. Now, as his mother sits worried in a police station, she’s coming to the realization that, even with all she and her estranged husband did to properly position him in a world that may not be kind to those who look like him, her black son just might have become another statistic. Ultimately, what drives the semblance of a plot forward is the question, “Where is Jamal?”
The audience finds out eventually, at literally the final moment of the film; but before getting there, it will have to sit through an assault of volatile discussions on race, gender, class and identity, that offer nothing revelatory, nor perspectives that are particularly interesting, and are delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, by actors who are otherwise great under different circumstances. But Demos-Brown’s facile script renders them irritating and their verbal jousting increasingly tedious.
A generous reading would offer that each character is simply speaking their respective truths, but even if that were the case, these truths would indicate a cast of incredibly shallow characters – maybe save for Washington’s Kendra – with little more than a basic understanding of how interwoven racism, classism and sexism are in the fabric of American life.
Washington’s performance amounts to an almost never-ending scream. The character doesn’t change at all. Her reactions are understandable given the circumstances she’s in, but only to a point. It’s 90 minutes of hysteria without a single moment of respite, which doesn’t make for engaging dramatic flow.
And Jamal’s father, Scott – who the audience discovers is white upon his entrance in the second act – is the prototypical alpha male. An FBI agent, he is also racially tone-deaf and displays an incredible amount of ignorance and arrogance, and even carries a racial bias against his own son. Naming him Jamal was the mother’s choice, and Scott makes it clear that he always despised the stereotypically African American name, and would’ve preferred something that wasn’t so black. “On a scale from ‘Eric Holder’ to ‘Darnell Jackson,’ ‘Jamal’ is brushing right up against ‘Darnell’,” Scott says.
He even mocks Jamal’s appearance. Though the audience never sees the kid, in describing him, Kendra reveals to officer Larkin that Jamal has cornrows. “The last few times he’s stayed at my place, he’s looked like a goddamned gangster,” father Scott rails in earnest.
And by the time Scott scolds Kendra for giving the police a “Black Lives Matter lecture”, as he calls it, one wonders how this obviously intelligent, “woke” black woman could have fallen for this particular man, much less married and had a child with him.
And should the audience want to buy this implausible relationship of theirs, Demos-Brown’s writing doesn’t at all explore territory that would explain how it came to be and what led to its demise. An investigation would’ve provided for far more intriguing fodder: an interracial marriage that’s fallen apart, as husband and wife are brought together out of concern for their son, but get tangled up in old tensions. Instead, Demos-Brown seems bent on delivering his nebulous “both sides” message with skin-deep observations, than actually representing the truthful, if ruined, intimacy between two flawed human beings.
Additionally, as the sole woman in the film – a black woman – clashing with men in authoritative positions who dismiss her blunt observations on race, Kendra’s story is a missed opportunity to interrogate and critique a patriarchal system that renders the voices of women – especially women of color – inconsequential.
The men in question also include two cops who are standard issue a-holes. In maybe his most telling moment, the young officer Larkin, chomping on donuts (because that’s just what cops do), initially mistakes Jamal’s father, Scott, for his superior officer, and tells him about the “totally out of control bitch” in the waiting room, who very quickly “went from zero to ghetto.” Of course he’s referring to Washington’s Kendra.
Eugene Lee, playing the senior Lieutenant John Stokes, enters late in the film as the veteran, by-the-book, #BlueLivesMatter officer whose presence is complicated by the fact that, like Kendra, he too is black. And so the character can speak frankly to a distressed Kendra, and call her “my sistah,” right before dropping truth bombs on her about the realities of race relations in America that are apparently supposed to be revelatory, but are instead dated and silly.
The lack of sophistication with which each character is depicted makes it difficult for audiences to root for, or be empathetic towards any of them. And by the time Jamal’s fate is revealed, in a rather abrupt, ham-fisted ending, audiences likely won’t care, and will just be glad that it’s over. Despite its dense dialogue and stagey theatrics, Jamal, Kendra and Scott remain mysteries, and the audience’s understanding of the film’s central contention isn’t anymore clearer than it was at the beginning. It’s subpar material for a more than proficient cast, which is maybe the most frustrating aspect of the film.
Heavy-handed and undercooked, if “American Son” was made 20 years ago, it might’ve had more resonance. It wears its good intentions on its sleeve, but it lacks the thoughtful insight and nuance on race relations in America that the late playwright August Wilson would’ve readily provided. Perhaps writer Demos-Brown and director Kenny Leon hope to tap into our collective consciences, but it’s difficult to be moved by such hackneyed, all-too convenient storytelling and overwrought sentimentality.
Directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon, “American Son” premieres on Netflix on Friday, November 1.