The 2016 Sundance launch for Nate Parker’s slavery rebellion drama, The Birth of a Nation, was a first-time filmmaker’s dream, with hearty standing ovations, instant acclaim and a massive $17.5 million distribution deal that promised major awards support. But even before rape charges linked to a 1999 college incident — on which Parker had been acquitted — resurfaced to torpedo the release, for many of us the gravity of the film’s historical subject matter outweighed the strengths of a somewhat self-important directorial hand, not to mention an absence of nuance in Parker’s merely adequate lead performance.
The actor-director again tackles a weighty issue, this time tapping into the open wounds of the Black Lives Matter movement in his second feature, American Skin. The low-budget project was financed without Hollywood support, though Spike Lee has stepped in to lend his industry clout as a presenter. Whether that’s enough to secure a U.S. release for this well-intentioned but heavy-handed bid to open a dialogue between law enforcement and African-American communities aggrieved by too many unjustified police shootings remains an open question.
To be fair, while Parker’s film lacks finesse and the writing too readily slides into bullet-point didacticism and self-righteous speechifying, it does go to some lengths to give both sides a voice, even if it inevitably stacks the deck. It’s no more obvious in its aims and methods than a lot of films that premiere in second-tier U.S. indie forums like Slamdance, Tribeca or SXSW, maybe even better than some efforts that come through that pipeline. And the movie unquestionably addresses a topic of searing relevance. What it will boil down to is whether Parker is deemed worthy of a second chance.
In press notes, the writer-director acknowledges the influence of 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon, the shadow of both discernible in a scenario that combines a tense hostage situation with pressure-cooker trial deliberations. But in fact the model seems closer to certain hackneyed Denzel Washington vehicles that cast him as the wronged Everyman driven to desperate actions, like John Q.
American Skin initially commands attention with the sad familiarity of its setup from countless cases of unarmed black American youths being racially profiled and killed by cops who are then cleared on all counts of using deadly force without cause. But once that dramatic foundation is laid in a forceful opening scene, Parker then steers the drama into steadily more coercive territory, scoring points for his social message but undercutting it with transparent emotional manipulation.
He frames the drama as the graduate thesis film of Jordin King (Shane Paul McGhie). The middle-class black student and his two-person crew call on shattered father Lincoln Jefferson (Parker) — and yes, that symbolically loaded name is for real, though he goes by Linc — a year after the Iraq War vet has lost his son Kijani (Tony Espinosa), known as KJ.
The 14-year-old’s death is seen in body-cam video footage, as Linc is randomly pulled over in an affluent neighborhood while driving KJ home from a school party. Linc makes every effort to remain calm and prevent the situation from escalating, but the two officers get punchy as he reaches for his car insurance papers and KJ begins filming them on his phone, claiming he has every right to continue when the cops order him to stop. While there’s no sign of him having anything resembling a weapon, a few moments of confusion and shouting later, Linc’s son is lying dead on the street.
Jordin and his colleagues are filming as Linc and his ex-wife Tayana (Milauna Jackson) head to a Los Angeles County court to hear the grand jury decision on Agent Mike Randall (Beau Knapp), the cop who pulled the trigger. When he is acquitted and cleared for immediate return to full service, rioting breaks out across the city. Black police chief Captain Morris (Wolfgang Bodison) urges Tayana to make a televised appeal to stop the violence, and the enraged words to him of KJ’s teenage cousin (Allius Barnes) pack power in voicing the pained frustration of African-Americans pushed to breaking point by systemic injustice.
Up to this point, the grounding in a reality all of us have seen popping up with distressing frequency on American news feeds in recent years provides dramatic urgency. But once Linc and a small, heavily armed band of his ex-Marine buddies and relatives storm the police precinct and take the building under siege with a dozen officers and several citizens as hostages, the clumsy script undermines the effectiveness of the intended social realism. Nor is there much to compensate in the visual style or the uninteresting performances.
Having been denied justice in the courtroom, Linc stages a trial in the cop station, with himself as prosecutor and loudmouth Sergeant Reyes (Theo Rossi) as defender. A 12-person jury is assembled out of citizens, janitorial staff and nonviolent offenders, who shuffle out of the holding pens like recruits from Assault on Precinct 13. Luckily, someone with foreman experience is on hand. Linc also drags Jordin and his crew into it, forcing them to keep filming the entire process despite Jordin’s attempts to be a voice of reason: “This won’t fix it.”
Parker splices in a few quick shots of the SWAT team assembling outside along with the media. But aside from an early call from a crisis negotiator, everything conveniently shuts down so the “trial” can play out uninterrupted. Even live-streaming the process would have been a handy way to heighten tension by cutting back and forth with the action outside, but Parker shows little grasp of pacing or modulation.
Instead, the film becomes a series of familiar character types all getting their turn to talk. The cops tend to back up Randall, insisting he was just following protocol and that racism can’t possibly be a factor in a precinct with a black captain. Naturally, there’s a hothead ready to disprove that when the history of black oppression comes up: “The slavery thing is a fuckin’ cop-out,” he scoffs. “It happened, get over it.” And Reyes gets accused of being a traitor to his people by a Hispanic prisoner right out of Central Casting.
Even with a brief outburst of violence and an injury amid the generally heated atmosphere, the movie plods along without much of an internal motor, and the stalled jury deliberations get unblocked in the most cliched way possible when Jordin busts out an immaculately crafted Atticus Finch speech that he pulls out of thin air. The most risible element is the turnaround in Randall’s attitude after first conceding that he and his partner profiled Linc and KJ, stopping them for no concrete reason, then declaring through tears that he’s suddenly questioning everything he thought he believed. This may fit with Parker’s idealistic vision of mutual understanding through open dialogue but it doesn’t feel honestly earned in such a poorly written, mechanical script.
As an actor, Parker does a bit better, but he tends to stick mostly to two settings — soft-spoken intensity or shouty indignation. And he gives himself a sustained hero’s salute as everyone files out of the office, pausing to look at Linc with new respect before the ending takes a predictably grim turn, closing with all the subtlety of a truncheon blow to the head. By the time American Skin is over, it’s managed to make one of the saddest symptoms of a divided country seem almost trite.
Production companies: Eagle Pictures, Mark Burg Media, Tiny Giant Entertainment, Sterling Light Productions
Cast: Nate Parker, Omari Hardwick, Beau Knapp, Theo Rossi, Shane Paul McGhie, Milauna Jackson, Tony Espinosa, Wolfgang Bodison, Allius Barnes
Director-screenwriter: Nate Parker
Producers: Mark Burg, Tarak Ben Ammar, Lukas Behnken
Executive producers: Zak Tanjeloff, Michael Novogratz, Vaagn Sarkissian, Bagrat Sargsyan
Director of photography: Kay Madsen
Production designer: Geoffrey Kirkland
Costume designer: Tiffany White Stanton
Music: Henry Jackman
Editors: Billy Weber, Matthew Feinmann
Casting: Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd, Kelly Knox
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Sconfini)