American Son

It’s hard to empathise with characters in Netflix’s “American Son”

Netflix’s “American Son” is based on the Broadway play directed by Christopher Demos-Brown. It is a race drama that tries to show the discrimination and unjustified killings of black men by police officers who often go scot-free.

Scandal actress, Kerry Washington plays psychology professor, Kendra Ellis-Connor. When the movie begins. it is raining. Kendra is frantic. Her son Jamal who just turned 18 years is missing and she at a police station.

Junior police officer, Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) is on duty. Unfortunately, he does not help her much. Officer Larkin’s hands are tied. First of all, according to the law, a person is only deemed missing after 48 hours. Secondly, he claims that there is only some much information he can share. And tells Kendra that she has to wait for senior Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee).

When Ms Ellis-Connor – as she often stated – presses on, Larkin eventually gives in somewhat and asks Kendra for a description of Jamal. But Larkin insists on certain stereotypes. ‘Does he have any distinguishing scars, tattoos, gold teeth?’ Larkin asks. He adds, ‘Erm, does he go by any street names?,’ But Kendra talks about how well brought up Jamal is. She talks about his taste in music and explains that Jamal has bad the best education. Yet, Larkin is condescending.

Even more disturbing is how he willingly Larkin volunteers information to Kendra’s husband Scott Connor (Steven Pasquale) when he mistakes him for officer Stokes, simply because Scott is white. Larkin tells Scott, ‘Man I am glad you are here. She went from like zero to ghetto flat.’ Whilst waiting for Stokes to arrive, Scott receives a video from his brother of a group of black boys arrested by the police. It is unclear if Jamal is one of them. There are gun shots. It is also unclear if anyone was hurt. Kendra and Scott become more agitated.

Interestingly, when Stokes eventually arrives, he turns out to be a black man. Though her refers to Ms Ellis-Connor as his sista, he does not exactly show a lot of empathy. The other really interesting twist to the story was the revelation that the group of black boys were arrested a black – but not a white – police officer. It created a good balance in the storytelling.

The entire 90-minute movie happens in a single-room, and it feels like a stage play. Just like Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” “American Son” is based on an important social issue. However, the movie is dragged downhill by an agonising and unduly prolonged debate by the Connors. The aim? To help the audience understand why Jamal is probably missing. But the storytelling is labouring. More so, the portrayal of the characters makes it difficult for the audience to empathise or root for them.

Netflix’s “American Son” is however saved by a very strong ending. Painful and sad. It leaves the audience gutted and finally shows how capable the cast truly is and how great they could have been under different circumstances.


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About the author

A lover of the arts who sees film and television through the prism of the Nigerian viewer.