American Son review: Divided in our most intimate relationships

Photo: American Son: A Netflix Television Event.. Pictured: Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale.. Image Courtesy David Lee/Netflix
Photo: American Son: A Netflix Television Event.. Pictured: Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale.. Image Courtesy David Lee/Netflix /

Family, race, and division intersect in Netflix’s powerful adaptation of the Broadway play American Son. Kerry Washington leads the cast. We’ve got the review.

American Son is an adaptation of the Broadway play of the same name. It started streaming on Netflix November 1. The entire broadway cast and director returned for the small screen adaptation. That includes Kerry Washington (Kendra), Steven Pasquale (Scott), Jeremy Jordan (Officer Larkin), Eugene Lee (Lieutenant John Stokes), and director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun). Christopher Demos-Brown adapted his broadway debut for Netflix. The play is taut and claustrophobic. It calls attention to how divided we are even in the most intimate of relationships.

The opening shot fades down on Kendra trying to call her son Jamal. They had a terrible fight the night before. She hasn’t heard from him since he drove off in his new Lexus. She’s in the waiting room of a Miami Police station where she repeatedly attempts to get info from Officer Larkin. All she gets is a lot of pushback and hamfisted attempts at managing expectations. More information is made available when Jamal’s dad, Scott, finally shows up. He’s a white FBI agent.

While we watch what’s left of Kendra and Scott’s relationship disintegrate in the waiting room, Scott gets a video message from his brother. It involves the shooting of three young black men. One of them looks like Jamal. With tensions at their highest, Lieutenant Stokes shows up. After an altercation with Scott that helps no one, he informs Kendra and Scott that, due to the time of day and weather, Jamal was shot in the head and killed by police. The closing shot fades upon the two parents, now united in grief.

All of the performances are strong, but this was clearly Kerry Washington’s time to shine. No one quite shows pain the way she does. That was a constant feature of her performances in Scandal and Confirmation. You can see her hopes drop from her face down to her stomach when she gets bad news. When she gets angry, you can see her spirit rise again. But, in a measured and controlled way. This isn’t a classic Gary Sinise level meltdown. We’re watching a human kind of meltdown in front of us. Kendra is clearly tortured and fearful of what happened to her son. It’s as if she knows he’s been dead the whole time and she’s just waiting for someone to tell her that she’s wrong.

American Son
American Son – Image Courtesy David Lee/Netflix /

Steven Pasquale consumes the role of Scott. He’s a CIS gendered white dude who thinks there’s one path to success in life. Most importantly, he thinks it’s easy to recognize and follow. There are small hints that Scott was not always this way, but it’s nothing in the text of the script. It’s more facial flashes and the thunderous way he delivers some of his more impassioned speeches. He’s trying to convince himself of what he’s saying as much as he’s trying to convince Kendra.

Jeremy Jordan is great as Officer Larkin. As an actor, he might have prepared a backstory that makes Larkin sympathetic. We sure never see it. Larkin is as confused by everything he sees as he is disgusted. I really did feel like he was disgusted by Kendra’s unrelenting requests for information. He’s more shocked that Scott is married to her. Larkin is legit more shocked than he is afraid of having referred to her as a b*tch to Scott before he knew they were married.

Eugene Lee is, I believe, meant to represent the Law as Lieutenant Stokes. He confronts, threatens, and ultimately arrests Scott. He gives a Blue Lives Matter speech to Kendra. He has to report Jamal’s death to both parents. It would have been easy to go over the top with this role. His character is referenced from the opening moments of American Son, but he doesn’t show up till the tail end. That’s built-in drama. Lee capitalizes on that instead of trying to create his own.

We know how this story will end once it starts. There’s no way things could go any other way and make sense. Still, the narrative is structured so that we meet the characters and get a slow trickle of exposition from their interactions until the very end of the play. And, this is a stage play. Director Kenny Leon does take us away from the waiting room a few times, but it’s to augment what’s happening in that waiting room. These characters are locked in a space waiting for an answer they don’t want. We are right there with them.

American Son
American Son – Image Courtesy David Lee/Netflix /

Let’s get to that exposition and story. Scott walked out on his marriage with Kendra, but he doesn’t understand that he also walked out on Jamal. He’s started to rebel by doing things that don’t sound all that rebellious: letting his jeans sag, walking with a swagger, and wearing cornrows. But this outrages Scott and Jamal knows it. He raised him to be different. But Scott doesn’t want to admit what that means. He’s afraid that if Jamal embraces his blackness in the smallest of ways, it’ll make powerful white men look past him. Or worse. Jamal will be seen as a threat like other young black men. Just like Scott surely does in everyday life.

Scott comes down pretty hard on Kendra for her parenting, which is unfair even before we know the extent of her and Jamal’s fight. Kendra is shaken by the things she said to Jamal. A lot of the ire revolves around a bumper sticker that Jamal had put on his car. I’m paraphrasing, but it reads Shoot Cops When You’re Pulled Over at Traffic Stops. The main issue behind that being that the two most prominent words in the largest font are Shoot Cops. Scott, a government cop, hides his hurt in his anger at Kendra.

You’re left wondering how Kendra and Scott even got, let along stayed, together. At one point, they ask themselves the same question. Their answers are a lot of small, intimate things and sex. They both have to convince themselves that having Jamal was the best day of their lives. That made me wonder if they would have stayed together had they not had Jamal. I had questions about their relationship when Larkin vented to Scott and called Kendra a b*tch. She wasn’t there. But, he never tells her when she comes back. He never even hints at it. I know. I know. There were bigger issues at hand. But, if Scott was really married-married/ride or die with Kendra, he would have had her back.

Larkin was fascinating to watch for me. I’ve had similar experiences managing people and being the person in his position. There can be an appalling lack of knowledge, tact, and common sense at the worst moments. Loved ones are looking for any information possible. They may understand that none is available. But, people in Larkin’s position need to know that the questions will keep coming. He’s gleeful when he actually has a fun fact about segregated water fountains. Yikes.

Ultimately, Larkin is the poster boy for needing to be around more people that don’t look or think like you. And I think that’s part of his character’s importance. Scott’s wife and biological son are black. Yet, even in the most intimate of human relationships, Scott is unable to connect with Kendra or Jamal in the most important ways.

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He doesn’t seem to even try. Sure. He means well. But that well-meaning is based in his longing to have Kendra and Jamal transcend their blackness. He probably doesn’t understand this or believes that it’s happening, but even as a CIS gendered white dude, I could see and feel that. It’s why Kendra knows Jamal is probably dead and Scott believes Jamal is probably fine. Scott feels he’s raised a young man that can overcome who he is. Kendra knows that’s not reality-based and is faced with the fact that her son might be doomed if he’s dead or alive.

American Son is currently streaming on Netflix.

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