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TIFF 2019 Review: American Son

Image Courtesy of TIFF

I am completely unqualified to unpack every nuance in American Son, and there are a lot of them here.  Any unconscious bias I wish didn’t exist was made abundantly clear during this film, which I’ll label essential viewing to anyone with or without a Netflix account this coming November 1st.

American son follows Kendra (Kerry Washington) who is shown in almost every frame of this film, which makes sense when you know that the movie is an adaptation of the play she starred in on Broadway this past winter.  The play, written by Christopher Demos-Brown, comes to the big screen with its entire New York cast including the aforementioned Washington as well as Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan, and Eugene Lee.  How they managed to perform this timely, emotional powerhouse on stage night after night still eludes me.

The story sees Kendra at a Miami police station looking for information on the disappearance of her son, Jamal, whom she was earlier told was involved in an “incident” with the police when his car was pulled over.  Her only initial source of information is officer Larkin (Jordan) who is more full of stereotypical assumptions than he is answers.

After a few calls, Kendra’s estranged husband, Scott (Pasquale) arrives, and being white he seemingly gets more information, only partially due to the FBI badge on his belt.  In fact upon Scott’s arrival, Larkin refers to Kendra as going “ghetto” in her pleas for her son.  What ensues is an emotional unpacking of many social and racial issues, not only between the couple and the police, but also amongst themselves as they mourn their broken relationship.  Matters are complicated further when Lee, playing a liaison officer, shows up late on the scene and questions the fact that Kendra has taught her mixed-race son to assert his rights rather than to fear the police and survive in a world stacked against him.

Recreating this Broadway show, director Kenny Leon knows to allow this experienced cast to thrive.  Shot almost entirely in one room on a soundstage there are no set changes or background to really detract, nor distract, from the source material.  Washington and Pasquale stand out here playing against one another with chemistry and vitriol almost simultaneously.

There are multiple layers to this source material, though Lee’s character adds a much needed and interesting perspective a little too late.  At its conclusion however I was left feeling I needed more than a moment to feel all this movie wanted me to feel.  Hours later it was still with me.  It’s unfortunate that this perspective is rooted in reality, something I will never truly be able comprehend, but the moving and imperative messages here should resonate with many.

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