Netflix’s American Son is heavy and complicated—just like racism, which is the overarching theme of the film. The movie, which stars Kerry Washington, Eugene Lee, Steven Pasquale, and Jeremy Jordan, is a TV adaptation of a Broadway Play with the same title, written by Christopher Demos-Brown. It’s emotionally charged, triggering, and it’s not just about racism. It’s about the complexities that stem from racism like, the complications of interracial dating, respectability politics, cognitive dissonance, and even the consequences of a broken home, just to name a few.
The movie plays out much like a play would. It’s set in the same location—a Miami police station—and it’s driven by dialogue. Storytelling isn’t the main focus, and the writing isn’t remarkable. However, the acting is strong, and that is how the messages are conveyed. It’s about dynamic and effects over suspense and visuals. The emotions conveyed are palpable, especially from Washington and Lee. We begin with Kendra Ellis-Connor (Kerry Washington), a black woman looking for her 18-year-old son, Jamal (named after her dead brother), who went out two nights ago and hasn’t returned home. She is attempting to get answers from a rookie cop named Larkin (Jeremy Jordan). Larkin knows more than he lets on, but he’s not moved by the site of this distraught black woman. He is extremely condescending toward her as he gives her the runaround and makes passive aggressive remarks, like about her son having a street name, for example. This prompts her to explain that her son is a good kid in an effort to convince him that he is worthy of being accounted for. Larkin explains that he can’t tell her anything until Lieutenant Stokes (Eugene Lee) arrives but Kendra won’t let up. It gets even sadder when she reveals that she has a degree in psychology and knows when she’s being managed, just so Larkin will stop talking down to her. He doesn’t, though, because it’s clear that black life doesn’t matter to him.
Kendra’s estranged husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale), arrives shortly after she steps away for a water break and Larkin assumes that he is the lieutenant. Larkin starts explaining that Kendra was “acting ghetto,” which she wasn’t, and actually begins to reveal some details about what happened. In short, their son was driving the Lexus he was gifted, which was in his father’s name, he had two friends in the car, and it got pulled over but police are investigating. That’s all we know for now. Larkin is slightly embarrassed when he learns that Scott isn’t the lieutenant, but he is in awe once Scott reveals that he works with the FBI. Larkin reveals that he hopes to work for the FBI one day and Scott gives him his card and offers to put a good word in. See the dynamic? Kendra has a psych degree and is a college professor. She’s articulate, well spoken, and as calm as she could be given the circumstances, but she had to jump through hoops to get even a modicum of respect, and still didn’t get it.
Larkin leaves and we learn that Kendra and Scott had been separated for months. Scott cheated on Kendra and things have been tense between them. A large portion of the next round of dialogue is Scott and Kendra arguing back and forth. Scott accuses Kendra of allowing their son to dress like a hoodlum despite the fact that they raised him “well,” and insinuates that he was probably hanging out with thugs who deserve to be pulled over because of how they dress. Jamal went to one of the top private schools in their city, had every opportunity possible afforded to him, and Kendra was extra diligent about him speaking proper English. He was supposed to be going to West Point in a month, something that Scott was excited about. Scott came from a long line of military and law enforcement and expected his son to continue the tradition. We eventually learn that Scott being out of their home caused a lapse in his communication with Jamal. Turns out, Jamal decided not to go to West Point so that he could pursue music. Kendra obviously knew about this but Scott didn’t.
What we also learn about Jamal is that while he was raised to be “respectable,” he was also going through an identity crisis triggered by his father’s absence (as Kendra assessed). He was raised to be like his father, but then his father left at a crucial time in his life—a time when he was starting to learn what it is to be a black man in this world—a time when he decided to start hanging out with more black friends and learning about their experiences. It was a time that caused great confusion.
Scott blames Kendra for this situation because she allowed their son to go out with kids they don’t know, which was basically code for black thugs. Kendra essentially calls Scott clueless about the black experience, which he is, and we wonder how the heck they got together in the first place. The answer to that isn’t simple but it’s clear that both characters have probably been experiencing cognitive dissonance throughout their entire relationship. They were in love at one point, and there are moments when they’re not fighting and instead talk about what bonded them, like Thelonius Monk, Thai food, and sex, but these moments are weakly illustrated. It’s hard to imagine that a woman like Kendra would be okay with being with a man who has such problematic views about black people—views so egregious that they definitely would have surfaced while they were dating. But perhaps he thought Kendra was one of the good ones. Kendra, on the flipside, possibly thought that marrying and procreating with a white man would protect her family. There’s no way to ever know this because the script wasn’t developed beyond the moments that we see and the dialogue that we hear so there are no explainers, there’s just viewer interpretation and the present.
Throughout this, the different viewpoints are underscored in how Scott and Kendra are respectively feeling about the situation. They’re both obviously anxious, but Scott feels like everything will be fine. In his mind, they will eventually retrieve their son and move on because he’s a good kid and things like this don’t happen to good kids. But Kendra feels the weight of the type of anxiety all black mothers feel when their children go out into the world. She taught Jamal what to do when pulled over by the police (something that surprises Scott, who obviously never had to learn this), but understands that police encounters can often go left for black people, citing Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, and Eric Garner as examples. She held space for the possibility of things not being okay, and she wasn’t about to be gaslighted into thinking she was overreacting.
Eventually, Lieutenant Stokes arrives, and while he is black, he’s a cop first and has chosen blue. He and Kendra get into it about how they got there in the first place. Basically, Stokes has no sympathy for her and says that if her son had done what he was supposed to do then they wouldn’t be in that situation. Kendra calls Stokes an Uncle Tom. Stokes calls her out on being with the type of white man who says egregious racist stuff but will pull out her picture in a heartbeat when he’s called out on it, just to show people that he can’t be racist because he married a black woman and has a black son. Both Kendra and Stokes made poignant observations during their heated exchange.
Finally, Stokes gets the information they are looking for and the news isn’t good. Jamal was “accidentally” shot by police. Basically, his car was pulled over. He and his friends—one of whom was wanted on a misdemeanor—all got out of the car. One tried to run and was shot but according to police, a bullet somehow ricocheted and hit Jamal in the head. He died instantly.
Kendra’s worst nightmare came true and Scott’s bubble of white privilege was busted. It’s a devastating ending for a culturally relevant film. The storyline wasn’t much, but it was driven by emotion and heavy handed on reality—almost too heavy handed, especially for people who don’t need to be convinced that these types of issues exist in the world. American Son wasn’t a waste of time, but proceed with caution because it’s exhausting.