Movie Review: American Skin

Nate Parker returns to directing with this suspenseful film about one of the most polarizing topics in the contemporary United States, the extrajudicial killing of black people by law enforcement. The film takes the viewer on an emotional journey but fails to deliver a cathartic release that would have made it a monumental work of art. Instead, the film falls incredibly short and resorts to the predictable.

“When dealing with the police, you don’t think of laws, you don’t think of rights, none of that. You just do whatever they say their way. That way you will live, live to make it home to me”- Lincoln Jefferson

The film centers around the aftermath of the killing of Kejani Jefferson, a fourteen-year-old unarmed African American boy. Kejani is smart, funny, idealistic, articulate, handsome…just about everything a parent would want in a young man that age. His father, Lincoln Jefferson (played by Nate Parker) is a former Marine with combat experience. Lincoln Jefferson (literally the most American name possible) struggled after returning from two tours of duty but managed to take a job as a custodian at an affluent school which allows Kejani the opportunity to attend.

Lincoln has taught his son about Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and other black leaders. This is evidenced by the posters on the wall in Kejani’s bedroom. Lincoln has instilled in Kejani the ideals of self-respect, manhood, dignity, and honesty. However, all these ideals are dramatically contrasted when Lincoln has “the talk” with Kejani. “The Talk” is a common experience in black households, particularly with young black boys, about how to handle interactions with police officers. Lincoln instructs his son to forget all of those ideals he has instilled in him and to suppress those thoughts when interacting with the police. He tells his son that the main goal is to make it home alive. This moment in the film shows the crushing of idealism, shrinking of humanity, and acceptance of second-class citizenship that “the talk” demands. “The talk”, rooted in parental love, only examples the condition of African Americans as members of a society that has not fully accepted our humanity and citizenship. For all of its practicality, it ultimately reinforces the belief that African American children lives don’t matter as much as others particularly when interacting with police officers.

After the police officer is not indicted by a grand jury, Lincoln feels powerless. His son is dead and the justice system fails to deliver the promise held in its name. This feeling of powerlessness is the motivation behind Lincoln’s future actions and central to understanding the black experience. African Americans lack the power to exact revenge on systems that have harmed us for centuries. The violence and trauma inflicted by the criminal justice system, political system, the educational system, health care system, among others are never retributed by African Americans. Instead, African Americans are forced to diet on hope, faith, and prayers…never to know what justice feels like. Lincoln, in the film, has had his fill and desires to dine on the sweet taste of revenge.

After riots erupted in the wake of the grand jury’s decision, Kejani’s mother is visited by a black police captain to encourage her to appeal to the community for peace. This was one of the most explicit presentations of how the system uses black gatekeepers to influence and control the righteous emotions of angered people. “People want answers. They are ready to tear shit up…the first thing they do they put the mama on the tv. If the child’s mother aint ready to see shit burn down then why should anyone else? The shit is diabolical” says Omari Hardwick’s character. One has to see the cycle. Officer kills, he or she is acquitted or no charges filed, anger erupts over the miscarriage of justice but black people are asked to be peaceful. Lincoln expresses as much as says “why are we the only people in this country expected to things without violence? You know what white people do when they are crossed? They kill people.”

These points are powerful cinematic expressions of the thoughts of so many African Americans. However, powerlessness is the reason why violence (outside of a few burned buildings) is never the answer that Africans Americans choose. This powerlessness is followed closely by fear…the fear of what happens when African Americans express full humanity and exercise complete citizenship. This fear can be seen in the response to the raid on the US Capitol in January 2021 by mostly white Trump supporters. Many black people pointed out if the group that stormed the capitol would have been black, they would have been killed. We fear because we know this to be true.

Lincoln decides to gather a few friends and to hold a police precinct hostage. This was a beautiful display of black fantasy. Finally, if only on film, a black person takes the initiative to exact justice. Finally, a fearless black man is willing to speak to “the system” in the language that “the system” is most fluent, violence. A part of me couldn’t help but wonder how quickly criminal justice reform would be enacted if we had a few more Lincoln Jeffersons. It is in this part of the movie that the spirits of Mike Brown, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, and countless others can smell the aroma of justice even if only in a fictional tale. But sadly, that’s as close as the movie will get them.

Lincoln puts the officer on trial with a group of inmates and others serving as the jury. There is a segment of stale dialogue with black people and other POC’s attempting to teach white officers (and White America by proxy)about the lived experiences of black people, in some futile attempt to get white people to see black humanity. One couldn’t help but wonder if black people really believe that white Americans don’t recognize the injustices that take place. They see it, they know it, they understand but far too many don’t care or encourage the continuation of these injustices… “it is what it is”. Later, the officer admits to racially profiling Lincoln and his son and he is found guilty by the jury. This is what we have been waiting for…this is what the ancestors of so many African Americans dreamed about but were too afraid to ever speak of openly. This is the hope of the slave and the martyr. Lincoln slowly raises his gun, the officer kneels with tears in his eyes, the gun is placed at his head, Lincoln pulls the trigger…THE GUN IS EMPTY. Justice denied and the hopes of black people dashed again. Even in a black fantasy film, black people are denied the cathartic release that comes with the execution of revenge, retribution, and issuance of justice. Not even in a film can we expect justice!

Is Hollywood not ready to see black people exacting justice? Is America not ready? Are black people not ready? To add insult to the injury of justice denied, Lincoln is shot and killed and the white officer goes home. Truly an American tale but a black dream deferred.

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