American Son possesses considerable power in its premise. However, it wrestles with the aspects of transferring a stage play to the screen.
Ultimately, the subject matter wins out. This yields in a brisk 90-minute Netflix presentation. However flawed, it highlights the struggles of melanized skin to fit into white molds today.
1. Quick review
Netflix’s American Son is a big, bold story about modern race relations in America. Or at least that’s what it wants to be. Instead, director Kenny Leon’s adaptation of Christopher Demos-Brown’s play feels like a heavy-handed after-school special.
Casting is faithful to the play. The film stars Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale as an estranged couple Kendra and Scott. They butt heads all night at the police station as they await word of their teenage son Jamal, who hasn’t come home from a night out with friends.
2. Is it worth watching?
There are important, pertinent ideas in this film. Ideas about racism, sexism, and generational conflict that are relevant today.
There are good professional actors here doing their well-intentioned best. The dialogue might well have worked well enough in the theatre – at least well enough to turn it into a film. However, when it translates onto the screen, it proves to be a deafening misfire.
General audiences seem rather impressed with the film’s treatment of timely themes. Critically, however, it hasn’t exactly been embraced. American Son has all the subtlety and nuance of Driving Miss Daisy. Which is to say almost none, albeit with a more complex message. It doesn’t seem to know how to deliver that message in any other way than having characters deliberately shout it at you.
As she paces a Florida police station, we meet Kendra (played by Kerry Washington), trying not to worry about where her teen son might be. She awaits her husband, Scott (played by Steven Pasquale), to join in the vigil. Kendra is an African-American professor well known in her field. Scott is a white man.
Stuck in a drab waiting room, she struggles to extract any information from the rookie officer on duty (played by Jeremy Jordan). He turns out to be a baby-faced cop who doesn’t hide his casual racism. (“Did your son have any distinguishing … gold teeth?”) The dark hallways echo with indifference and the thunder outside rages. There’s no escape from the terror of not knowing.
The film has been directed by Kenny Leon (whose credits include the live TV productions of Hairspray and The Wiz). It is based on the popular play American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown. The film disgorges a whole lot of information in a compact timeframe, in a manner that feels conspicuously stagey and a trifle forced.
II. Music and visuals
The music director of this film is Lisbeth Scott. She is an Armenian composer, vocalist, and songwriter. She has also been featured in Avatar, Spider-man, the Narnia franchise, and many more. The soundtrack for American Son includes the works of Ladonsyl, Selena Gomez, WizKid, Drake, and Post Malone. Camilla Cabello’s Liar, Migos’ My Family, and RITMO by J Balvin and The Black Eyed Peas also feature in this film.
The film’s opening with a Ta-Nehisi Coates quote tries to proclaim itself a modern work of utmost importance. However, there’s a thick layer of ickiness that it can never really shake. The single-room conceit, unfortunately, works against the film.
Everything about it feels like a play instead of an adaptation of one, which makes sense once you realize that the bulk of Leon’s directing experience is on Broadway, not behind the camera. He doesn’t seem to know how to make the tension in the room interesting to watch.
3. Final thoughts
Especially on the eve of spiralling racial clashes today, it is important for people all over the worked to check their privilege and inherent racism. The medium with which you educate yourself about the evolution and camouflage of racism today is extremely important.
While it is thoroughly refreshing to watch a film that is blunt in its racial politics, it doesn’t make it very interesting to watch. Netflix’s other big drama about race, When They See Us, managed to do it much better. Granted, it had more time with a multi-episode format.
The difference is about trusting your audience to understand you without spelling it all out while still being crystal clear in the messaging. Washington’s range is one of the films few assets. She acts out the script that has her deliver monologue after monologue.
As the sole woman in the film, and a black woman, Kendra’s story could have been told at a different intersection. She constantly clashes with men in authoritative positions who dismiss her blunt observations on race. Kendra’s story is a missed opportunity to critique a patriarchal system that renders the voices of women – especially women of color – inconsequential.