Netflix’s ‘American Son’: Gut-wrenching examination of race and the American dream

Freddie Gray, Sam Dubose, Oscar Grant, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Atatiana Jefferson are just a fraction of the names of Black people shot and killed by police in the United States in recent years.

A 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that 1 in 1,000 Black males can expect to die at the hands of law enforcement. The tragedies surrounding the aforementioned names and the bleak facts of that study can create frustration over the fact that the present, much like the past, is still riddled with racial discrimination and anti-Black violence.

The Netflix original movie American Son places this frustration on screen, attempting to lay bare the emotions and sentiments from various sides on the issue of police brutality against the Black community. The film presents no clear answers, never lets up on the intensity, and provides no true comfort. It is not a movie for casual viewing, but aims to make you uncomfortable and affected.

Directed by Kenny Leon and written by Christopher Demos-Brown, American Son is based on the Broadway play of the same name, also written by Demos-Brown. The small cast features Kerry Washington (Scandal), Steven Pasquale (Rescue Me), Jeremy Jordan (Supergirl) and Eugene Lee (NYPD Blue). Washington and Pasquale lead the cast as estranged parents waiting at a Florida police station to find out what has happened to their teenaged son Jamal, who happens to be Black and has not returned home after a night out. The 90-minute film takes viewers on a rollercoaster ride of emotions that leads to the answer of what happened to Jamal. It’s not a pretty journey, but the acting and fast pace will compel one forward to see it through to the end, even if the answer you seek is the one you dread.

The performance by the cast is a driving force of what makes the movie engrossing. Washington shines bright as the Black mother in turmoil, all too familiar with the sense of foreboding that neither she nor her son is truly safe in the so-called land of the free. Viewers spend the most time with Washington’s character Kendra, receiving a heartbreaking and, for some, very relatable portrayal of anxiety and anger. Kendra is symbolic of the Black mother we see all too often on the news who gathers strength to speak to the tragedy of her child’s demise at the hands of those sworn to protect. Kendra is who that mother is before the demise, holding onto some hope that her son has not become another statistic. The powerful portrayal will draw the viewer in to have hope for Kendra despite the odds.

Pasquale plays Kendra’s estranged white husband Scott, who also happens to work for the FBI. This introduces a variety of interpersonal dynamics and angles that play out during the film. Scott has to deal with his own personal biases as someone who works in law enforcement while being confronted with his son’s growing sense of racial alienation. Scott loves his son and wants to see him safe, but he’s shown not to be able to fully grasp the justified fear and anxiety that Kendra has for their son’s wellbeing. Kendra understands the systemic anti-Black violence that hangs like an axe over the heads of Black bodies in the United States; Scott believes it’s just a matter of following the rules and not getting mixed up with the “wrong crowd.”

Pasquale does a fine job creating sympathy for a character that has the potential to be outright disliked. He exists in a gray area, as all of the characters do. No character is presented as completely good or completely bad. Caricatures and stereotypes often associated with racism are left out here, as the viewer is forced to hear out various angles regarding police brutality. For better or worse, you will be made to see not only the viewpoint of the Black mother, but that of the white cops, and the Black cop.

Although what currently dominates the mainstream media is the latest controversy surrounding President Donald Trump, American Son is a thoroughly relevant piece of cinema. The police murder of Atatiana Jefferson in October of this year in her own home is evidence of this. As reports have repeatedly revealed, police killings affect people of color at an exponentially higher rate than their white counterparts. Black men ages 15 to 34 are between nine and sixteen times more likely to be killed by police than any other group. The American dream that should include equality under the law is still an elusive one to Black Americans.

We never see Jamal’s face in the film, and this is an effective choice, because it forces the viewer to understand that Jamal is symbolic of the statistics we read about, the names associated with tragedy, and the Black boys and girls with hopes and dreams of prosperity who may never live to realize them. Jamal could be your neighbor, your co-worker, your student, your son. Jamal is someone’s son.

All of the action takes place in one room, yet fancy sets and multiple scene changes aren’t needed, as powerful performances and fast pacing will keep viewers invested in what happens in that room where Kendra awaits to learn the fate of her son.

One shortcoming of the film could be seen as the loaded dialogue. Characters will at times give elaborate speeches and replies that may not come off as natural. As mentioned before, each character is not only an individual but serves a symbolic role on the issue of police brutality. Because of this, talking points on race and politics sound closer to academic debates rather than casual conversation. American Son is attempting to convey a lot in just an hour and a half, so characters get right to the point of what side they represent. Subtle this film is not.

The overall messaging of American Son appears to be that nothing is completely cut and dry, and that there are sides and feelings involved from every angle. This may not be enough for some viewers who want a better answer beyond looking at the issue from all sides, and who grow tired of the repeated news stories of Black people dying at the hands of police. It’s powerful storytelling that will make you feel particularly angry, but may leave you frustrated, as it gives no pointers on where to direct that anger next.

American Son is currently streaming on Netflix.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.