*The following article contains several spoilers from the movie.
The all too familiar cacophony created by bullets erupting from the gun of a police officer pierced not through one, but two black men last night. Seeing Lincoln ‘Linc’ Jefferson’s (Nate Parker) laconic and gruesome death in American Skin served as yet another reminder to it’s enervated black audience of the inevitable question: “How can we get ahead?”
Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Rayshard Brooks. Breonna Taylor. Botham Jean. Alton Sterling. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. George Floyd. It’s irrefutable that the number of police killings in the US disproportionately affects African Americans. Despite only making up 13 percent of the US population, Black Americans are two-and-a-half times as likely as white Americans to be killed by the police. As a result of that figure, we now have a full blown film genre dedicated to black lives matter storytelling (The Hate U Give, Just Mercy, Queen and Slim to name a few). American Skin, like the previous BLM literary machinations, constructs a plot based on the cruel reality that is happening around us. But something feels eerily different about American Skin.
Don’t get me wrong. Unlike Black KkKlansman, there is minimal levity to contend with the dark weightiness of this film, and that’s intentional. The core of this movie is after all, one of America’s most fundamental social afflictions. But just before we see Lincoln’s body riddled with bullets, fans are uniquely treated with ecstatic revenge porn against cops. It’s actually reminiscent of Denzel Washington’s John Q. Written and directed by Parker, his script eventually immerses all of us in naivety and optimism. You start to buy in to the idea that maybe the good guy wins it all. You start to mentally eradicate the line of demarcation and shift your perception of the boys in blue when the cop who killed Lincs son, Officer Mike Randall (Beau Knapp) is ostensibly imbued with newfound self-awareness and rectified morality. You’re rooting for this story to turn out differently, and you’re dumbfounded and disappointed when it doesn’t. The film creator forcefully holds up a mirror to our pain, but didn’t reveal anything in it’s reflection that we have not already seen before.
Or so you thought.
The indefatigable eye of the camera is the most powerful symbol in this movie, and has proven to be the foundational catalyst for the 2020 United States Civil Rights Movement. At the start of the movie, Linc agrees to be the subject of a student film that explores the incident that resulted in the death of his son Kajani Jefferson, directed by Jordan King (Shane Paul McGhie). Little does Jordan (or the audience) know that Linc has bigger plans. As Linc and his crew storm the police station where Officer Randall works, the camera assiduously and fastidiously captures the mock trial. Masterfully led by Linc, he brilliantly denounces the lack of accountability over police brutality, while undauntedly pursuing the truth of the event in question and exposing the obstinate rigidity that is rooted in police training. Similar to the 2020 Civil rights impetus, it was a camera that caught the knee of Derek Chauvin inhumanly pressed on George Floyd’s neck for 7 minutes and 46 seconds. As the world watched in horror as Floyd succumbed to death, it imbued this country with a sense of connection that overrode our differences and replaced them with a giant swell of galvanizing morality. We protested, we marched, we successfully united and we collectively forced change at the highest political office and then some.
At the end of the film, we see the young director Jordan, grimly packaging dozens of DVD copies of the recorded events, labeled American Skin to send, presumably to a much wider audience. A couple of years ago, I may have felt completely different about this conclusion. I watched Queen and Slim, and I was flat out depressed. But after watching American Skin last night and enduring the historical events of 2020, I felt inspired instead of hopeless; uplifted instead of deflated; and woke instead of tired.