Netflix’s “American Son” – Another Portrayal of Systematic Racism

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Spoilers are below. If you haven’t seen “American Son,” please watch and come back!

After watching Netflix’s American Son, I felt so many emotions and I was left with a different understanding of America’s current state. Someone who may be into theatre may have known that American Son first made its debut on Broadway. For me, social media is what put me on to the new film and later found out it was a play. Kerry Washington starred in the film but what caught my attention was the developing story of a black mother who was looking for her son who seemed to have gotten into some trouble with the police.

As I began watching the movie, my first thought was, where’s the rest of the set for other scenes? The film is only shot in one room with a few edits of other places for flashbacks. I can imagine that was great for keeping down production costs but the fact that we didn’t need any more rooms shows how impactful the acting and storyline were. In that one room, it was dynamic, it was filled with emotion and so many perspectives.

My irritation started to form with the young police officer Paul Larkin, played by Jeremy Jordan, when he chose not to show any empathy for a mother who had no idea where her son (Jamal) was or if he were even alive; one of the many issues that people of color face with authority or people who believe they have power over them. These authoritative figures believe they can do whatever they want and people are supposed to take it. Why aren’t people more empathetic and understanding of situations that others are placed in? Yes, Kendra (Kerry Washington) could have been a bit softer with her delivery but when Paul continues to insinuate that her son is some type of thug on top of her being fearful of the worst, I understand her rage. Although rooted in unjust stereotypes, Paul’s attitude and actions toward Kendra were realistic. Time and time again, we see police officers, judges and people of power act on the perception that black and brown boys and men are misfits and are not worthy of compassion.

Finally, the husband, Scott Connor (Steven Pasquale), enters and Paul begins to provide all the information that Kendra was previously asking for. Go figure. In the beginning, Scott confused me when he was not taking the situation seriously. Is this what many call “White Privilege”? The ability to never think the worst in these types of situations. Scott quickly forgets that yes, his son is a part of him but he is also a part of Kendra, making him half African American. His son will never be able to conduct himself the way he does. I will say, he realized how serious the situation could be after receiving a video that was going viral of shots being fired at three black men. His demeanor changed instantly. Race and color meant nothing to him at that point, he was a father who was fearful of what may have happened to his son. The passion and love were evident when he was prepared to fight Paul and Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee) who came in shortly after.

When Lt. Stokes walked in, I wasn’t sure if he was Black or Hispanic but I later found out he was “Black Black”. When he was one on one with Kendra, I still think he could have been more empathic, but he definitely got her together quickly and I couldn’t argue with that. Ultimately, he told the parents of Jamal that he died due to a gun fragment to the head. As the Lieutenant explains it, there was a traffic stop with three black men and one had a warrant out for his arrest. When the officer went back to his car, one of the guys got out of the car, then the second and then the third. At that point, I’m really unsure what to think. Knowing that the guys should have stayed in the car, could this police officer really have feared for his life?

After watching the film, I feel like it was eye-opening and really showed a deeper perspective into each viewpoint. Although I do not believe in excessive force, I do believe law enforcement officers have a hard job and are faced with danger more than any other career choice.

How do we use the story of American Son to help to educate not only our Black and Brown boys but police officers as well?

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