Based on the Broadway play by the same name written by Christopher Demos-Brown, American Son was one of the official selections for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). With the same cast that worked together on the stage play, the Netflix film, directed by Kenny Leon is one of the films that left the biggest impression on me during this year’s TIFF.
With a story that revolves around parents seeking answers to their son’s disappearance, Kendra (Kerry Washington) and Scott (Steven Pasquale) spend hours in a Miami police station questioning Officer Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) about their son’s whereabouts. With many unanswered questions and the officer purposely giving Kendra the runaround on top of going above and beyond to help her White husband, Kendra is at her wits end. One can imagine the pain and fright Kendra must be feeling, and American Son does the important job of placing the audience in Kendra’s shoes, and sadly, many mothers in America and beyond have felt Kendra’s same pain. As Kendra tries to maintain a brave façade, the turmoil from the strained relationship (or lack thereof) with her husband also begins to put its weight on her shoulders.
American Son effectively shows the burden that many women of colour, specifically Black women, face on a daily basis as it pertains to the police and their treatment of visible minorities, and the inequalities within the justice system. While there are many layers and pieces to unravel within the screenplay, American Son does its best to shine a light on a multitude of topics in a limited amount of time including racism, misogyny, inequality within the justice system, and the nature of people’s communication with one another dependent upon elements like race, gender, and professions (amongst other things). While each topic is one that demands its own attention, American Son brings them all to the forefront and it makes for a heartbreaking story, but one that puts you into the shoes of the people you might never necessarily see yourself relating to.
The performances from the entire cast are stellar, but Washington is a force to be reckoned with as the heartbroken mother demanding answers. While Kendra is the main focus of the film, with other characters playing supporting roles, there is still a battle that is waged on stage (or in this case on-screen) as Scott, Officer Larkin and Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee) all try to overshadow Kendra, bringing their own points to the table. This plays to the overwhelming masculinity, and sense of being a woman in a man’s world that American Son demonstrates. However, Washington’s Kendra is always the character with the greatest presence, and her urgency and anger to get to the bottom of what is happening with her son is palpable.
I still find myself thinking about American Son days after having watched the film at TIFF. So much goes on in such a short amount of time, however, each moment is just as important as the next. Even small details that some may not notice, such as Kendra being trapped in this dimly-lit waiting room, rain pouring outside – which demonstrates her current sense of being locked in this space without hope, with a storm raging within are just as important as any of the words spoken in American Son. This film is a lot, and I mean this in the best way. It will likely be a lot to process for some, however, it’s the reality for thousands of people and a reality that cannot just be swept under the rug. It is a reality that people need to understand, try to grasp and try to see from the perspective of those who live through this injustice day in and day out. Of course, this is easier said than done for some people, but it is something that American Son strives to do. During the Q&A after the film, director Kenny Leon said that is was important for him to not show what Jamal looked like, other than some moments where the officer is questioning Kendra about her son’s appearance. Leon said this was important because he wanted the audience watching to feel as though Jamal could be anyone’s son. He did not want him to only be seen as “the Black kid” and the myriad of stereotypes that could come with that – as evidenced by the officer’s line of questioning in the film, but as the ‘American Son’ – the son of anyone who was watching; driving home the point that a mother’s pain and a child’s pain is one that should be universally felt.
As a film that will leave you thinking about it for days to come with a powerhouse performance by Washington, American Son is a film that truly must be seen.
American Son is slated to hit Netflix on November 1.