From 1972 through 1997, ABC aired a series of television films called "afterschool specials." Aimed at the youth market, they usually plucked a topic from the headlines, dramatized it and left you with a clear, actionable message. They were corny as hell, though sometimes one could find devilish delight in "this is what you should not do" sequences. In an era without many viewing options (it was either this or Donahue) these programs got watched.
Though based on a well-received play, Netflix's American Son reminded me an awful lot of these productions. Afterschool is a time for homework, and listening to the position-papers-as-dialogue in this bare, actor-driven exercise felt a lot like "doing the reading." With no teacher to check you aren't napping, I can't imagine too many people making it through to the end.
I am not diminishing the importance of this topic, and I fully recognize that the issue of ingrained, institutionalized racism in law enforcement is not an abstraction for many people. But having articles from The Atlantic blurted at me by actors does not make for drama. It's even a tougher pill to swallow when the movie barely hides its stage origins. Other than a few short dissolves in this 90-minute movie (some to "imagined" images during a languid monologue), director Kenny Leon sticks with the "filmed play" technique. Though the dialogue feels very forced at times, and some of the reactions come off as very phony (more on that in a bit), it's only thanks to the good performances of Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale that this is as watchable as it is.
The setting is a (rather spacious and comfy?) waiting room in a police station. Washington plays a frantic mother (and mental health educator) whose teen son is "somewhere in the system" but no one can give her a straight answer. She is at her wit's end, as any mother would be, but has the additional panic that mothers of black sons feel with encounters with police.
Her first interactions are with a rookie (Jeremy Jordan) who doesn't miss an opportunity to say the wrong thing, giving writer Christopher Demos-Brown multiple opportunities to hit all the sensitive topics concerning race relations, prejudice, and "the kids today." He doesn't tiptoe gracefully, he stamps down like an elephant, making sure every conceivable angle is examined.
The "both sides" aspect of American Son is exhausting because it doesn't feel real. When the missing boy's father (a white FBI agent) appears, the story burrows into "the issues" even further. A final switcheroo comes when the ranking police officer (Eugene Lee, who is black) arrives. The older, black Lieutenant is given the opportunity to give what is, essentially, a Blue Lives Matter speech ("The people who patrol the streets are not robots!") which is certainly something you don't see every day.
All the points issued are valid. No, a black kid is not wise to drive around Miami in a Lexus with a bumper sticker that says "Shoot Cops." Yet, it is also extremely unfair that he needs to be cognizant not to do that, what with the First Amendment and all. But this is a conversation for the PTA. Loving parents who are worried their kid may be dead really aren't up for Face The Nation-like talking points.
Just after the moment when the very real specter of their son being gunned-down is made forefront, Kerry Washington's character begins reminiscing about the day she and her husband first met. Human beings in crisis do not act like this! It's annoying.
Weirdly, the most compelling character in the film is never seen. Jamal, just turned 18, is a biracial kid in an all-white school, coming from a family of means. His white father just left his black mother for a white woman, and he is rebelling by wearing cornrows and baggy pants. Tired of being "the face of the race" to his white schoolmates, he's made new black friends, is staying out late at night and considering not attending West Point next year. As conversation around him continues, he becomes a unique and nuanced individual. By the end, American Son has decided to make him another statistic.
The ending packs a wallop and I suspect that, when in the room with Kerry Washington on Broadway, American Son left people emotionally devastated. At home, on Netflix, it doesn't quite connect.
TV Guide Rating: 2/5
American Son premiere Friday, Nov. 1 on Netflix.