NEW YORK (CNS) — Kerry Washington (“Scandal”) stars in the intimate, viscerally powerful drama “American Son.” Miami attorney and playwright Christopher Demos-Brown adapted the 90-minute film — which is currently streaming on Netflix — from his acclaimed 2018 Broadway play.
Director Kenny Leon and the cast of four actors all reprise their roles from the original theater production.
The film opens early one morning inside the waiting room of a Miami police station. As heavy rain streaks steadily down its windows, African American mother Kendra Ellis-Connor (Washington) frantically texts her 18-year-old son, Jamal.
The night before, Jamal — about to become a West Point cadet — had been out driving with some friends in the secondhand Lexus he had recently received as a high school graduation gift from his parents. Uncharacteristically, he had never come home.
Kendra has received a call from the police indicating that her son’s car was involved in some sort of incident. But their vague, unsatisfying descriptions have prompted her visit to the station in search of some answers.
Initially, Kendra’s only source of information is inexperienced, 30-something white officer Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan). Insisting his hands are tied by protocol, Larkin only exasperates the already anxiety-ridden mother when he tells her she’ll have to wait until Lt. John Stokes (Eugene Lee), a more seasoned detective, arrives.
“I have a Ph.D. in psychology,” she says, “I know when I’m being managed.”
The dynamic between them changes with the arrival of Kendra’s estranged husband, white FBI agent Scott Connor (Steven Pasquale). It soon becomes apparent that Scott can command Paul’s attention and respect in a way no African American woman could.
Lt. Stokes’ eventually puts in a belated appearance. But his indefinite answers are so unsatisfactory that they provoke an outburst from Scott — despite the fact that Scott has just advised Kendra to stay cool.
“American Son” will test and discomfit those adult viewers for whom the movie — with its strong and profane language, racial slurs, and charged discussions about racism and police violence — can alone be endorsed.
The entire story happens within the waiting room, and the characters’ proximity to one another intensifies their raw emotions. The immediacy of the action, unfolding in a confined space, leaves the audience with nowhere to turn for escape. And the film continually shifts perspectives, prompting viewers to re-examine their own racial attitudes.
In an effort to disabuse Paul of his stereotypes about young black men, for instance, Kendra says that Jamal “walks like a jock but can recite any Emily Dickinson poem and still gets a tear in his eye when he hears ‘Puff the Magic Dragon.'”
Yet Kendra seems blind to her own prejudices. Thus she laments that her husband sounds like “an Okie from Muskogee.”
Though unseen, Jamal is very much a presence in the room — he remains uppermost, in fact, in the minds of the audience. His fate, once viewers discover it, makes a palpable, deeply felt impact. As a result, those willing to take on challenging fare will find “American Son” cathartic to an uncommon — and welcome — degree.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.