Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? And does a human error have a statute of limitations? Are people allowed to make egregious mistakes and still live full successful Iives? Is the expectation for them to make amends in a way that is restorative?
These are the defining questions when considering Nate Parker the very handsome, intelligent and talented actor/filmmaker, who is responsible for the films Birth of A Nation and American Skin. On the onset of the success of his freshman project “Birth of A Nation” , skeletons from his college closet surfaced about a sexual assault allegation against a young woman who later committed suicide. Many assume the slander was purposeful from the powers that be, to slow down his project that was more than “just another slave story” but a story about Black rebellion.
But let’s stop there.
Let’s attempt to compartmentalize for a moment so we can dive into his Sophomore Project American Skin.
Our main character Lincoln Jefferson is home finally after two tours in Iraq. He returns home to an estranged wife, a country who does not care about vets, and to his son Kajani who has been growing up without his father. For many reasons his marriage dissolves, but prominently there is an unspoken tension about his absence and inability to get on his feet, yet fatherhood remains center focus. We feel the love for his son as a thread throughout the film, much like the way we felt seeing the picture of Tracy Martin kissing his son Trayvon Martin on the forehead
We feel that they are human. That they deserved to have this love between father and son like anyone else. Like Lincoln deserved to watch his son…grow.
Lincoln works hard at a prestigious high school as a Janitor, this affords his son a scholarship and a chance at a better life. One evening they are out late and get pulled over by cops, which results in the murder of his son Kajani. This is a common social justice theme in films lately, as we quite literally watched the world burn last year over the murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. But this film explores it a little more intricately.
We watch what happens when the father COMPLIES and what happens when the son DOES NOT. Ultimately both actions do not de-escalate the situation, which brings us to the grand debate, Will we live if we comply?
It debunks the myth that there is a right behavior that protects Black folks from the ingrained and trained biases of American police. That the American Skin we inherited is a birthmark and a target. The ingrained and trained biases of American police.
Lincoln’s voice narrates the story but it is through the eyes of a young film student that we SEE the story. He is doing a documentary not just on Kajani’s death, but on his life, who he was and the people that love him. We watch a funny and intelligent kid lose his life and I wonder if our children need to be likeable for their deaths to matter?
I wonder about that choice for the film.
More importantly, we have an insider’s view of the court process and its aftermath, how it breaks the spirit of a family. There was a scene where they sent in the black chief of police to convince Tayana, Kajani’s mother to do a press conference asking for peace, hoping to help cease the riots. The family is in the living room watching and a cousin interrupts angrily at the audacity to pressure the family into this. The character reminded me so much of Stevante Clark, Stephon Clarks rightfully angry brother(the young man murdered by cops in his grandmother’s yard in Sacramento,California.) After the cops convince her to get on tv, the family laments on how the strategy is to always ask the mother or the matriarch to ask for peace, because if the mother won’t fight for her cub, who will? A flashback of a million angry black women flooded my mind. It is a desperation and a forsakenness I would not wish on anyone.
If I could put this film in a genre I would call it a cerebral thriller. It was so intelligent. It is literally a Black person’s worst nightmare, and as a viewer I hoped for once that we would take justice into our own hands. The film takes a turn, like a legit Oh shit moment, when Lincoln grabs his war buddies, snatches up the chief of police from his house and kidnaps the film students with specific instructions: DON’T STOP FILMING! In that moment I could feel the spirit of Mamie Till requesting an open casket, so “the world could see what they did to her son.”
They jump to a shoot out inside the police precinct. Lincoln and his small army take it over by force. He is a trained war vet, trained by a country that would deny him his rights to justice, much like his forefathers. After it’s clear that this is a hostage situation, and we can hear the building being surrounded by cops and helicopters as Lincoln decides to hold a court hearing for the murder of his son.
The jury is composed of nonviolent convicts and people that work in the precinct. The cop on trial complains that these are not his peers, to which Lincoln retorts “Welcome to my world!” As he forces the cops to recall the case, we hear the rhetoric about Black on Black crime and suspicious Blacks in white neighborhoods come alive. He asks the jury to judge the man fairly, although we all assume that a guilty verdict still means death. This is the meat of the movie, some have called it preachy, but I think it was a brilliant way to debunk the narratives that justify the killing of Black men.
The ending was disappointing and expected to say the least and many felt that we do not get justice in real life, and we couldn’t even get it on film. Over all my peers appreciated the film as a project that is “for the culture,” one with a necessary message.
While I was talking amongst friends we decided to put Nate Parker himself back on trial. Did we feel he was guilty of any crime? There were a lot of mixed feelings and I will leave it up to you to make the final decision.
But what I will leave you with is that women absolutely matter. That the crimes against us can not be smoothed over by talent or the passing of time.
That we live in a culture where violence against Black men and against women is ingrained in our culture. That it is a toxic tradition we have to unlearn collectively, and that although I believe injustice, I also believe in restoration, and I am unsure how to balance the two.
I am left uneasy that the person with the most to lose was Tayana, the mother. Her son did not come home. Her partner did not come home, which is a real world trauma we are always reliving. We are always screaming!
I guess what I want from Nate Parker is for him to continue to make films about resistance, for him to know that Black women’s critique of him is for him not just to acknowledge ills against Black men, but against women as well. For him to imagine Black women characters who are not just the backdrop of men’s stories. Who are not always the ones with the most to lose.
To imagine an American Skin, where we are protected. Where our sons and our husbands come home to us.
About the Author
Movie is reviewed by TANTV Contributor, Tiara Phalon