“American Son” Review: Racism for Dummies

American Son Steven Pasquale & Kerry Washington in American Son (Netflix)

Netflix’s single-room stage play adaptation fails as an “important” look at race relations.

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 the Christopher Demos-Brown play feels like a heavy-handed after-school special. Remaining wholly faithful to the play, the film stars Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale as estranged couple Kendra and Scott. They butt heads all night at the police station as they await word of what’s happened to their teenage son Jamal, who hasn’t come home from a night out with friends.

You can see where this is going from the setup. The audience waits on the edge of their seats to know whether the vague and mysterious “incident” Jamal’s been involved in is yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man. You can see it in Kendra’s (Washington) face. Indeed, Washington’s range is one of the films few assets. She acts the hell out of a script that has her deliver ham-fisted monologue after ham-fisted monologue.

And that’s the bulk of the film, too. We never leave the police station waiting room (save for a couple of dialogue-less flashbacks) and instead watch the only four characters in the script either deliver long, in-your-face speeches about RACE IN AMERICA TODAY! Or, alternately, long, in-your-face speeches about how Kendra and all other black people need to quit whining so much.

American Son has all the subtlety and nuance of Driving Miss Daisy (which is to say almost none), albeit with a more interesting and complex message. It just doesn’t know how to deliver that message in any other way than having characters deliberately shout it at you.

The single-room conceit also 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.

American Son has all the subtlety and nuance of Driving Miss Daisy (which is to say almost none), albeit with a more interesting and complex message.

Leon could’ve taken a few lessons from 2014’s Locke, which takes the one-room a step further by featuring Tom Hardy as the lone actor who spends the entire movie driving in his car. And yet it was captivating. American Son is not.

From the film’s opening with a Ta-Nehisi Coates quote, it tries to proclaim itself a thoroughly modern and important work, but there’s a thick layer of schmaltz that it can never really shake. A tinkling piano score and plenty of softly blurry shots of rain hitting the precinct window will have you rolling your eyes.

On some level you could argue it’s good if not thoroughly refreshing to have a film be so blunt in its racial politics, but that 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 multiepisode format, but it still could teach American Son a thing or two about riding the line between trusting your audience to understand you without spelling it all out while still being crystal clear in the messaging.

Overall, Washington is the standout here while everyone else ranges from perfectly adequate to stilted. With so little else to keep your attention (unless you really enjoy being lectured), it’s just not worth your time, even with the meager 90-minute runtime.

American Son Trailer:

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