Netflix’s ‘American Son’ is an excellent take on racial struggles in America but a waste of Kerry Washington’s potential
An adaptation of the namesake popular Broadway play, the social movie about racism manages to address the plaguing issue but lacks the conviction of characters and overtly assertive dialogues, especially from the lead protagonist.
Dropped fresh on ‘Netflix’ on November 1, ‘American Son’ 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 brings out multiple social-cultural angles that have been the topics of debates and discussion lately, like, racism, sexism, and generational conflicts. The plotline itself is so strong that the question doesn’t even arise if it is right or wrong. So is the cast. With powerful theater actors showcasing themselves in their best possible form, you can expect nothing but the best performance and a memorable movie experience.
Despite their best intentions, the characters and their performances do not do justice to our expectations. Being the ‘hero’ of our story, Kerry Washington is the only one who draws all the attention. Before we get to critiquing further, it is worth mentioning that Washington is on-point with her tension-driven role and she shines in portraying Kendra’s emotional turbulence, vulnerability of a mother, and the dignity of a woman who has held it together for herself and her child, even when her husband leaves her for another woman.
And now for the moment of truth about how much could we have had explored with a performer like Washington. We have seen her in Emmy-winning roles across television and on the big screen. We cannot forget how much she stood out as Olivia Pope (Scandal) to the extent that her character became an aspiration for every young, black woman who wanted to make it big in the world. But as Kendra Ellis-Connor, Washington feels less exploited for her potential and lacked conviction in her character.
Let’s take her core character for instance. A black woman is missing her only son and she seeks the help of local PD to find him. Her estranged white husband (Pasquale) who also happens to be an FBI agent joins her at the police station and tries to expedite things. If we try to see it simple and straight, Washington’s primary emotions would ideally come from being a mother, race or social class notwithstanding.
Imagine if you were a parent of an 18-year old son and your child is not home until 3 am and you think he is missing, what would be your predominant thoughts and the actions that follow? Would you rather try to find racial connotation in everything that you hear or see or would your focus be on just finding your child and knowing that he is fine? We do understand the sensitivity of a mother of a teenager, black (but technically Jamal is an interracial kid) boy, but it cannot be the basis of an entire movie. Perhaps the idea befits a play better. And more than most plays work because they pivot on one strong idea. With a feature, we expect to explore various ups and downs, before we discover a high point. This particular journey was more like walking a straight line.
While we do understand that her fears for her interracial child were not irrelevant, they came across as too pushy in the dialogues. With every dialogue, it felt like harping on the same note, using different words. We do understand the attempt here; the concept of racism was weaved into parenting, struggles of an interracial couple, cops vs. civilian fight, and the mindset of a black woman who wants to keep son away from the ‘street life’. But Kendra’s character got somewhere lost in the pursuit of trying to establish herself at every angle. Gradually, it only started to look like a monologue for Black Lives Matter, rather than highlighting anything else. Not that the idea is wrong from any creative point of view. A chamber drama is heavily reliant on dialogues, and so is ‘American Son’. However, the combination of treatment, dialogues, filming, and the character sketch of Kendra, just could not fit together for the screen as much as it did for the stage. When it comes to watching a feature, we expect a lot more finesse than television or stage. Kendra’s dialogues (as she held the mantle of the story), were almost akin to daytime television soaps with over assertive phrases and hamming moments, uncalled for satire and over-emoting.
Despite the right ingredients, the movie adaptation ‘American Son’ fails to live up to its Broadway reputation. Washington is lovable in most of her works, for her performance and her personality that comes out in her characters, but unfortunately, ‘American Son’ is not one of them.