Netflix UK film review: American Son
Ivan Radford | On 12, Dec 2019
Director: Kenny Leon
Cast: Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan
Watch American Son online in the UK: Netflix UK
“There was an incident.” “What does that mean?” That’s the sound of Netflix having an extremely difficult conversation with its latest film, American Son. Essentially a filmed version of Christopher Demos-Brown’s Broadway play, which was performed on stage in 2018, it’s 90-minute chronicle of a mother’s attempt to find out what’s happened to her missing son – and the answers are not an easy watch.
Bringing a play to the screen is always a challenging feat, but in an age where theatre streaming online is an increasingly mainstream phenomenon, director Kenny Leon (who also helmed the original show) smartly treats this as more a filmed production than a full-on translation. There are some brief flashes to other locations, and a nice shot from outside the window in the rain, but American Son on the screen understands that part of the play’s power comes from its contained, claustrophobic location: the whole action unfolds in a police station waiting room, where its characters are as restricted in their knowledge of events as we are.
The events in question involve the disappearance of Jamal, which has led his mother Kendra (Kerry Washington) to visit the police to report him missing. But when word arrives of a car of young black men being pulled over by the cops, tensions begin to rise, as Kendra starts to fear the worst. Giving her answers is Paul (Jeremy Jordan), a rookie cop who is as clueless as she is about the matter.
But what he doesn’t know is as revealing as any official information, as he patronises, dismisses and belittles her, immediately seeing her through the lens of his own racial bias. When Jamal’s absent father, Scott (Steven Pasquale), arrives, it becomes even more painfully evident how differently Paul treats each of them – in the drop of a hat, he switches from condescension to trying to be genuinely helpful, from combative to kind.
This is where Demos-Brown’s play excels: its shrewdly observed depiction of the in-built prejudices that underpin American society, whether conscious or unconscious. Jeremy Jordan, who’s an excellent, likeable presence on Supergirl, brings a naivety to his officer that doesn’t excuse his despicable behaviour, but does humanise it – making the whole anguishing horror show even more believable.
That believability is stretched at other moments, as Kendra and Scott have arguments that conveniently don’t seem to have arisen before this evening, but Pasquale’s performance teases out Scott’s own attitudes and presumptions, as the play briefly considers the challenges of being an interracial couple trying to put their son in good stead for a hostile, unequal world. Kerry Washington, meanwhile, is superb as a mother balancing frustration and anger with fear and concern. She has to be turned up to 11 for most of the 90-minute runtime, but manages to do so without overplaying each plot beat or taking things into heavy-handed territory.
With the arrival of a second officer in the second act (Eugene Lee), the result is an ensemble piece that is elevated above its occasionally on-the-nose speeches by a nuanced cast – they’re reprising their roles from the stage show and it shows, able to bring enough depth to their characters that stop this being a reductive snapshot of modern society. It argues there aren’t always explicit heroes and villains in every situation (although the incident referred in the play’s final words reminds us there can be); driving them all is a system that turns black and ethnic minorities into statistics with an insidious, harmful built-in bias, a bias that has insidiously opened up fault-lines in communities. Indeed, it’s revealing that Jamal is off-screen the whole play – a reminder that those fault-lines, no matter how unseen, can swallow people whole.
American Son is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.