Three years ago, the furor that erupted over Nate Parker — when the rape allegations made against him in 1999 resurfaced, though he had been cleared of the charges in court — set the table for the #MeToo era. In hindsight, that furor directly presaged the reckoning brought on by the Harvey Weinstein scandal. “The Birth of a Nation,” the Nat Turner biopic that Parker directed and starred in, probably took a hit at the box office as a result (though it still made $15 million), and the movie certainly suffered during awards season, with Parker, after a series of media statements he now admits were “tone deaf,” increasingly viewed as persona non grata. A lot of people, both in Hollywood and out, probably assumed that he’d been “canceled.”
So when it was announced, in early August, that Parker would premiere a new film — his second feature as a director-star — at this year’s Venice Film Festival, it felt a little like he’d risen from the dead. Yet it’s fair to say that an air of skeptical cynicism greeted the announcement. Some asked, bluntly, whether Parker deserved a shot at a comeback. And given how the controversy surrounding him had tainted the release of “The Birth of a Nation,” it seemed, at the least, that the odds were now heavily stacked against him. If his new movie, “American Skin,” was greeted in Venice as a dud, that might be the coup de grâce to Parker’s career as a filmmaker. And to be honest, it felt like a number of people quietly hoped that that’s how it would play out. His name had come to symbolize a kind of ethical morass. Maybe it would be easier if Nate Parker just went away.
But having now seen “American Skin,” I’m compelled to report what will strike some as inconvenient news. It’s a good movie: tense, bold, angry, empathetic, provocative, observant, morally engaged. And also, to be honest, a trifle gimmicky. Yet that’s tied to its power as a racially charged, socially urgent gut-punch drama.
The movie is about police brutality — and, specifically, the police shooting of an unarmed young black man. It’s not a documentary; it’s a work of fiction. Yet it’s meticulous in its re-creation of the contours and details that have been repeated, over and over, in a grisly horrific pattern in incidents like this one. The film fully immerses us in the terror, the agony, the rage, and the thirst for justice that have come to be symbolized by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In America, of course, we shouldn’t need a movement to tell us that the killing of an innocent civilian by police officers — not one civilian but dozens, hundreds; who knows, in the end, how many? — is a systematic wrong that the society cannot stand for. But that’s not where we are. And that’s why we need a movie like “American Skin.”
The film opens with the shooting, and it’s a hair-trigger sequence that Parker stages with maximum reality, terror, and filmmaking finesse. In Los Angeles, Lincoln Jefferson (Parker) is driving his 14-year-old son, K.J. (short for Kijani), back from a friend’s house in their Honda Civic. They get stopped for speeding, though it didn’t look like they were going very fast. Lincoln knows the drill of these situations all too well. He adheres to the officer’s demands with painstaking cooperation, keeping both hands visible on the steering wheel, explaining even his smallest movements, so there will be no confusion, and when the cops note that his insurance has expired, he tells them that the form must be outdated. They ask him to get out of the car, which he does. But K.J., sensing trouble, has taken out his cell phone (meaning his camera). The cops ask him to get out of the car, and to put the phone down, and when he hesitates…
Cut to one year later. Kijani is dead, and Lincoln, who is known as Linc, is still drowning in what happened. He’s a Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq, then got a job as a custodian in order to qualify his son for a school in a neighborhood he couldn’t otherwise afford. Now Jordin King (Shane Paul McGhie), a 21-year-old college kid, has come knocking on Linc’s door. He wants to make a student film about the case. Inwardly, I groaned a bit. A film about a kid making a film to investigate an incident that, as horrifying as it was, we’ve already digested as an audience? It sounded a bit…labored.
Yet even as I thought that, I felt myself drawn in by Parker’s performance, which hits a note of complex, lived-in despair. The movie fills in the story with flashbacks, including a telling one in which we see Kajani adopting a righteous rejection of police brutality — a chip-on-the-shoulder contempt for the lawlessness of it — that’s one part Barack Obama and two parts Malcolm X (whose picture hangs on his wall). Linc tells his son: Morally, you’re correct, but sorry, that’s a dangerous attitude. And, of course, he’s right.
Linc and K.J.’s mother, Tayana (Milauna Jackson), are divorced, but they both want justice — which means seeing Mike Randall (Beau Knapp), the police officer responsible for K.J.’s death, indicted. Along with the rest of the city (for this, of course, has become a cataclysm in the African-American community), they await the grand jury’s decision. And then it arrives: no indictment. In other words: a vindication, by the system, of police brutality and maybe murder.
A police meditator — an African-American officer — is sent to Linc’s house, but all he’s saying, really, is: suck it up. Accept the injustice. Linc cannot. But what he can do? This is where “American Skin” leaves familiar situations and emotions behind to do what only a work of fiction can. It imagines. And takes a leap. And boxes opens hearts and minds.
Having come to the end of his tether, Linc gathers his buddies, along with some machine guns, walks the “Uncle Tom” police meditator out of his house, and then, after ordering Jordin to film everything, he bursts into the local police station. They take the officers there hostage, including the two who stopped Linc and K.J. on that fateful night.
I’ll admit, for a moment, that I groaned again. Where could this possibly be going? And when Linc announces that he wants to stage his own mock trial, the whole idea sounded desperate, reckless, and over-the-top — on Linc’s part, and on the part of Parker as a filmmaker.
But as you watch “American Skin,” something remarkable happens. The mock trial takes up the last 45 minutes of the movie. In essence, it is the movie. Everything else was just set-up. As we get to the know the people in the room, you start to notice how authentic the acting is. These cops really seem like cops — as in, they’ve got chips on the shoulder, too, but they’re not villains. They’ve got their own hard-won, survival-based system of rationalization.
The cops are put on the witness stand, and the dialogue that ensues — Parker wrote the script — is what I associate with a certain kind of powerful playwriting, as in a drama like “12 Angry Men.” The dialogue of is searing, forceful, edge-of-the-brain topical. There’s a debate about hip-hip that sounds like the one we’ve heard for decades, but Parker dives deep into the metaphysics of it: If white kids are buying this stuff, then who is it for? What does it mean? And Parker is brave enough, as a filmmaker, to put himself in the officers’ shoes. That’s what artists do. They don’t demagogue; they try to understand. As the dialogue becomes a feral but galvanically expressive shouting match, the movie, at moments, rises to the pitch of contentious eloquence that Spike Lee achieved in “Do the Right Thing.”
Mike Randall, the officer who shot K.J., takes the stand. He seems a typical L.A.P.D. hard-ass, but as his thoughts and rationalizations emerge, we see that he isn’t a bad person. So why would he have committed this brutal and unnecessary act? Is he a racist? The movie, among other things, is an exploration of what racism is: its codes and emotions, the deep background of it. Mike’s racism isn’t virulent: He doesn’t look at black people and hate them. But it’s guarded, suspicious: He doesn’t look at black people and feel that they are him. He sees a difference where there is no difference. And Linc, while it looks, rather scarily, like he has staged this trial to have a reason to execute Mike, has actually done something much tougher. He has staged this trial to break him down.
The acting in “American Skin” is charged, gripping, pinpoint, and Beau Knapp, who plays Mike Randall, brings off something extraordinary. In an entirely believable way, he shows us what the consciousness of white complacency looks like from the inside. And then Linc, who knows just what he’s dealing with, sets up a “You can’t handle the truth!” moment. And Mike falls for it. Mike tells him the truth. The truth that dared not speak its name. And it’s a cathartic moment.
I don’t want to overpraise “American Skin.” Because of what I think of as the “gimmick” factor, it’s not the rapt work of art that Ryan Coogler’s film about a true-life police shooting, “Fruitvale Station,” was. It’s closer to the volatile, street-charged version of a well-made play from 60 years ago. Yet it stands as a testament to Nate Parker’s urgency as a filmmaker, and it’s a movie that I think a great many people will want to see. Only time will tell if they get a chance to; only time will tell if this is truly Nate Parker’s comeback. But “American Skin” suggests that he has much to say.