Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Flashing red and blue lights. Siren. A car pulls over to the side of the road. Police officer approaches the driver’s window. The driver is African American. Without writing anything else, you’ve probably developed a picture of the scene and its inevitable conclusion. We’ve seen it before through dash-cams and bystander recordings. Ironic, then, that AMERICAN SON tries to keep the audience speculating while its characters spend ninety minutes panicked, yelling, and moralizing the state of being black in America.
Kendra (Kerry Washington) is distressed as she frantically paces around an empty police station waiting room, her shoes about to dig holes into the carpet as the minutes tick. It’s late, and her teenage son Jamal didn’t come home. He’s a good boy, so failing to make it home is a red flag.
At the station, she’s wrangled rookie officer Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), who wears his racism casually like you would a collared shirt tucked out, to look into the matter. His condescending appeals to calm down go ignored as Kendra’s pleas and volume increases. Their verbal tug of wars are met with more agitation for each new meeting, be it Larkin’s usage of the phrase “street name” to see if Jamal had any aliases, or Kendra, a successful academic, correcting the officer when attributing a literary passage to the wrong author.
If this type of imprudent backbiting sounds like your cup of tea, then AMERICAN SON might be, as Netflix proclaims it, the television event for you. Because this isn’t a movie in the true sense, it’s a televised play that recreates its insular Broadway experience – including original cast and stage director – to broaden its scope. A fine idea except everything is inert, except when the actors start shouting their soapbox pontifications about racial identity and policing.
Soon Larkin thinks he has an ally when Scott (Stephen Pasquale) shows up in the lobby. He’s white and an FBI agent. Then the shoe drops; he’s Kendra’s estranged husband. Color me not surprised. The constant yammering continues only this time Kendra and Scott get into it. Round and round they go about their marriage and the triviality from naming their son Jamal instead of Seamus. That’s just the opening round of the parents attempting to out-argue each other. Just wait until they start discussing the corrosive influence of black culture into the life of their biracial, culturally-insulated child.
On Broadway, Christopher Demos-Brown’s play was built on performance and response. Kerry Washington shouted so those in the back row could hear her fight and struggle for news about her son. But such histrionics should have been toned down considering there’s no audience within earshot.
AMERICAN SON uncomfortably rests on a headline-worthy topic designed to provoke certain emotions. But each reveal that’s meant to be incendiary comes across as ironic. By the time it’s over our nerves are fried. Sadly, in a day where people are loud about what lives matter most, this slim character study sees everything in black and white.
AMERICAN SON is now streaming on Netflix.