'American Son': Kerry Washington and cast receive praise but Netflix film fails to translate to screen what it accomplished on stage
‘American Son’ premiered on Netflix November 1 and follows Kendra Ellis-Connor (Kerry Washington) and her estranged husband, Scott Connor (Steven Pasquale) in pursuit of their missing 18-year old son, Jamal. Directed by Tony Award-winning director, Kenny Leon, the story is a commentary on race relations and systemic oppression.
It is an adaptation of Christopher Demos-Brown’s Broadway play of the same name. And while Washington has received praise for her role, both in the play and the Netflix adaptation, how does the execution compare?
The general consensus is that it doesn’t work. Why? Reviewing the film for NME, Nick Levine suggests the play’s heavy-handed exploration of racial prejudice works better on stage than on a screen. He argues that the conversations about race in America are likely to play better on stage, “where dialogue doesn’t need to sound as natural to convince”.
Others have made similar arguments. Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian praises Washington’s performance, much like everyone else. However, he writes that while the dialogues sound great on stage, in the film, they feel overtly dramatic and ham-fisted.
Alissa Wilkinson, writing for Vox, says, “theatricality comes across as forced and curiously inert,” adding that the conversations don’t convey feelings; rather they feel pithy and contrived. The commonality held by these reviews and more express the same thing over and over again: There is a difference in the way a play and a film works.
One can’t use the same tricks and techniques for the other because they are two separate mediums. And while the overt dramatization of plays works on-screen sometimes -- ‘12 Angry Men’ is, by all means, a hallmark in this genre -- on screen, the matter has to be a little understated.
Even ‘12 Angry Men’ works because of the era it was made in. A perfect adaption of that play may no longer work in today’s times when film viewers have become more refined in what they seek.
Tambay Obenson writes in IndieWire that the film lacks subtlety even when handling delicate matters like racism, sexism and police brutality. He likens the dialogues to a sledgehammer, hardly a comparison one would expect from a good conversation.
So, does that mean ‘American Son’ is bad? Not at all. Despite the reviews offering criticisms, the general consensus is that it packs explosive performances from the cast -- the cast that performed the play as well. If only that was all that mattered.
‘American Son’ is available for streaming on Netflix.