Review: Nate Parker takes on police brutality in ‘American Skin,’ but the drama plays like parody
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Embattled filmmaker Nate Parker, who previously delivered the 2016 historical drama “The Birth of a Nation,” reprises his flawed strategy of wearing multiple hats as writer, director and star in “American Skin,” a topical faux documentary so astoundingly heavy-handed in addressing race issues it occasionally reads as unintended parody.
A year after his 14-year-old son Kajani (Tony Espinosa) died at the hands of police officer Mike Randall (Beau Knapp) during a traffic stop, Iraq veteran Lincoln Jefferson (Parker) agrees to be the subject of a student film exploring the case. Behind the project is young director Jordin King (Shane Paul McGhie), a character who serves both as justification for the immediacy of the mockumentary format and as Lincoln’s conscience.
With legal justice unattained, Lincoln and his military buddies storm the station where Randall works to hold a mock trial at gunpoint. It’s not that every choice Parker makes up to that point is precisely nuanced, but when the story devolves into courtroom drama, the dreadful and self-important writing is laid bare. There is no doubt movies denouncing the lack of accountability over police brutality can promote the need to address it, but when done this inelegantly in cinematic form, the intention proves insufficient.
Jaw-droppingly verbose dialogue, that’s at best risibly inorganic to the situations at play, hinders the ensemble cast’s chances for conveying any sort of naturalism. Characters recite stilted lines, more suited for a TED talk than a high-stakes drama where emotions are supposed to be running high, on topics such as racial profiling and rap lyrics.
Polanski’s “J’accuse (An Officer and a Spy)” and Parker’s “American Skin” reopen the ongoing debate of whether we can separate the art from the artist.
Notably, Parker includes Latinos in the conversation via an officer who’s completely bought into the corrosive “Back the Blue”/”Blue Lives Matter” mentality. Still, as much as Parker may believe he’s being insightfully provocative in his film’s treatment of one of the country’s fundamental social afflictions, the product feels reductive. “If those who oppress us could vividly feel how we feel, even if only for a moment, then we could all get along,” seems to be the film’s core reasoning.
It’s difficult to see “American Skin” of value as anything but a tool to reach people incapable of comprehending subtleties and who need didactic directness to spell out racism for them. Rather than speaking to the moment coherently, the movie communicates its message in loud fits of dull screaming.
Rating: R, for language throughout and some violence
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Available Jan.15 in select theaters and VOD
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