Nate Parker makes his return to the writer’s table and the director’s chair once again to deliver another film that brings to light the horrors of black America, but this time, he does it through the lens of contemporary history. American Skin is a challenging film that will force you to reflect on the lives we lead while making us understand the sad state of affairs American finds itself in today and has always been since the inception of its formation. Nate Parker takes front and center stage on all fronts and constructs a film that paints the depths of American society by presenting the struggle without holding back for a second. Yet still, American Skin is not without its flaws as the film does feature a few minor issues that luckily do not have any lasting detrimental effects which completely bog the entire project down. A demanding film with a focus that wears its message on its sleeve made by talented individuals who know exactly how to exhibit those ideas and thoughts is exactly what makes American Skin gripping from start to finish.
American Skin is about U.S. Marine veteran Lincoln Jefferson (Nate Parker) whose son Kajani Jefferson (Tony Espinosa) is unjustly murdered at the hands of the police and tells the story of the lengths one must go to find justice in an unjust system. A year after the incident, a small crew of young filmmakers including Jordin King (Shane Paul McGhie) and Kai (Sierra Capri), approach Lincoln about filming a documentary centered around the tragic event. Lincoln having already agreed prior, goes forward with the interviews and brings them along with him as they prepare for the hearing on whether Officer Mike Randall (Beau Knapp) will go to trial for the killing of his innocent son. As fate would have it, Officer Randall is found innocent with no trial throwing Lincoln and his wife Tayana Jefferson (Milauna Jackson) into chaos. A media storm ensues and protests break out prompting Lincoln to take matters into his own hands. He travels to the residence of the chief of police, Captain Morris (Wolfgang Bodison) and abducts him. With a band of brothers and a film crew to document it all, Lincoln leads a seizure of the police department and holds an impromptu trial that seeks to find out if Officer Randall is guilty in the case of the murder of his son Kajani. All the while, tensions rise, emotions flare up, and heavy topics such as love, loss, and race are addressed in scathing discussions.
Nate Parker is without question the fundamental soul of American Skin. Parker’s work both in front of and behind the screen speaks volumes to his talent as a person in the industry who knows exactly what kind of stories need to be told no matter how uncomfortable they may be to experience. For starters, Parker’s writing style is finely pointed as he makes sure to never mince his words. Nearly every line of dialogue from each individual character feels like it serves a purpose with true intent. However, at times the message can feel incredibly heavy-handed in a way that feels less poetic and far more preachy. On top of that, the other characters who provide counter positions often wind up peddling the same empty unimaginative arguments that have been spouted for years making them come across as cartoonish caricatures. The film does attempt to give the audience a healthy look at the other side of the fence, but it falls flat because it never feels as though that the same amount of effort and grace was granted. Parker also finds himself taking up the role of director, and at first glance, it appears as though that the film will be employing a documentary-style approach. Sadly, it is something that is utilized sheerly for the sake of a more personal viewing experience with handheld footage, CCTV footage, shaky cams, and snap pans. All of these elements are captivating, but it ultimately leads to disappointment and even worse, the destruction of immersion when more often than not, several “ghost cameras” are set up throughout the entire scene making it completely impractical and jarring to watch. With all of that being said, I believe where Parker shines the most is through his acting ability. Writing, directing, and starring as the lead role is nothing new for Parker as in 2016’s The Birth of a Nation, he did the exact same thing. In American Skin, Parker’s wide range of ability is put on full display as he brings every moment to life delicately balancing between the intense emotions of the scene. When the script demands a somber tone in the darkest of moments, Parker delivers. When the script demands an aggressive tone in the harshest of moments, Parker delivers. However, Parker is not the only notable cast member as every other performer across the board manages to truly show emotion in a way that feels genuine from start to finish.
For as captivating as the individual components of American Skin are from the writing to the acting, they are not what I found to be the film’s strongest asset; that award belongs to the impactful message this story conveys. Considering the national strife in America that is constantly being exacerbated with every passing moment, it should come as no surprise that the film of this magnitude would be riddled in controversy. It stands to reason that as human beings we all have internal biases whether we are conscious of them or not, so a film deciding to tackle one of the most contentious topics in modern American history is automatically going to be scrutinized simply on the basis of its existence. In spite of that, American Skin stands as an important film that tells a timely story which we have sadly all grown far too familiar with hearing. This is more than just a film that tells a tale of injustice and misfortune, it is a raw and honest reflection of the discriminatory world in which we live in. But what makes American Skin captivating is that Parker does not revel in the brutalization of it all, instead, he shows us a beacon of hope that in anyone else’s hands could have ended ruthlessly vindictive or outrageously exonerative. Balancing on that tightrope is often not an easy task, but Parker maintains his ability and conveys his message that will tragically be told until systemically rooted issues are destroyed and new institutions can be birthed from the ground up.
In closing, American Skin is a film that feels very true to the harsh realities the minority communities of America must face every day. With Nate Parker’s hands on every aspect of this film, he truly showcases his abilities on both sides of the camera. Parker and his supporting cast perform to a top-notch degree but the film’s somewhat jarring plot and several other minor problems stemming from the writing and directing hold this project back from being absolutely remarkable. American Skin delivers a powerful message that supersedes the film it is contained within. At times the film may often feel heavy-handed in its approach, but even that can not take away from its potency. However, it is clear that had an extra layer of care and refinement been placed into American Skin, the project would undoubtedly stand as one of the most important films of the twenty-first century. Yet with all of that being said, there is no way in good faith that I can not recommend American Skin to any of those who are willing to listen.