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Kerry Washington Shines in the Powerful 'American Son'
November 1, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Stage productions can lose some of their visceral power when they're put on film.

The play American Son premieres Friday on Netflix with the force of a hard left cross.

Written by Christopher Demos-Brown, American Son showcases Kerry Washington (top) as Kendra Ellis-Connor, a mother seized by mushrooming panic because her son Jamal is several hours late coming home from an evening out with his friends.

Since her son is 18, and by all indications a classic good kid, this might seem to be just what teenagers sometimes do.

That's the reaction of Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), the rookie Miami cop on the overnight shift when Kendra drives to the police station to ask if there have been any incidents she should know about.

"Calm down, Ma'am," Larkin tells her. He hasn't heard of any terrible incidents, and while he is not personally authorized to access all incoming information, he has contacted the man who can, public information officer Lt. John Stokes (Eugene Lee).

As soon as Lt. Stokes arrives, Larkin assures her, she will know what the police know.

That's not enough for Kendra, who insists someone must know something now. She also suspects that beneath his by-the-books professional demeanor, Larkin considers her an overreacting annoyance rather than a concerned mother.

That might be the case, American Son suggests, if Jamal were an 18-year-old white kid. What Kendra understands, and Larkin doesn't seem to acknowledge, is that a young black man doesn't have to have done anything wrong to end up on the very wrong side of an encounter with the police. So, yes, she wants reassurance.

After several testy exchanges that establish the tone of Kendra's relationship with Officer Larkin, Jamal's white father, Scott (Steven Pasquale), arrives. As an FBI agent, he tries a different tack to get information: a little lawman-to-lawman bonding.

It soon becomes clear, however, that the mix-and-match conversations among these three transcend the availability of any information on Jamal's whereabouts.

Kendra and Scott are estranged, and the root causes of their differences turn out to overlap considerably with the issues Kendra fears could be at play with Jamal, the cops, and whatever did or didn't happen somewhere in the Miami night.

While it isn't hard to find racial DNA in many disparate American discussions, stitching its threads together is harder than it seems.

Demos-Brown and director Kenny Leon do it seamlessly, and Washington executes their game plan in a performance that pulses with fear and pain.

Kendra doesn't come across as perfect. She does know and understand this: Something could have happened to a kid whose whole life was shaped so that something would not.

Demos-Brown explains the little things that far too often still make life in America corrosive for people of color. It's the lack of respect. It's the inability of white folks, with or without malice, to see and hear language and attitudes as non-whites see and hear them.

At the same time, American Son acknowledges actions, attitudes, and behaviors that transcend or sidestep race, things that can bring us together or tear us apart.

White characters don't come off terribly well here, in part because they so matter-of-factly use words like "uppity" that are universally understood code for black folks who dare to assert their rights.

Having the white characters so unsubtly define themselves this way is no accident. Demos-Brown wants to make it clear how often stereotypes and buzzwords permeate the conversation of people who would describe themselves as enlightened.

The only drawback to making the white characters so transparent is that it may give audiences an out. They can reassure themselves that because they would never use the term "uppity," they bear no liability for America's racial divide.

No, American Son doesn't condemn all white people. It does say that on racial matters, we as a nation and a people aren't there yet, which is why Kendra Ellis-Cooper paces around a deserted Miami police station in the dark and rainy hours before dawn, not knowing whether her son has become an American statistic.

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