Reel Shorts | American Son (TIFF)

by Tim Gordon

The story of a pensive mother looking for his missing son early in the morning at a police station is the backdrop for a fascinating look at race, class, and privilege in Kenny Leon’s explosive drama, American Son.

Against the backdrop of an early morning at a South Beach police station, a mother, Kendra (Kerry Washington) is desperate for information on her missing son, Jamal. Summoned to the police station because of an incident with his car, she engages a rookie police officer, (Jeremy Jordan) for any information that he can give her to provide a clearer picture.

Either sticking strictly to the protocol or simply disinterested, providing Kendra the information she needs to calm her down and assuage her concerns. When he finally submits to assisting her, his line of questioning clearly racially profiles her son and creates an additional dynamic that further aggravates a sensitive situation.

Awaiting his superior officer, he mistakes Kendra’s husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale) who is White and also an FBI agent. Scott initially plays along to get the information he failed to deliver to his willing wife who the officer doesn’t respect because of the color of her skin. Instead of backing his wife and providing a united front Scott uses his privilege to his advantage and to Kendra’s chagrin. This leads to a heated confrontation between the separated couple over Scott’s new relationship and the anger that their bi-racial son is suffering as he comes to grips with his identity as a young Black man.

Washington gives an anguished but stellar performance as Kendra who is trying to beat back her echoes of concern as she tries to ascertain her son’s whereabouts. It doesn’t help that despite her son, Jamal’s privileged upbringing, he is still profiled because of the color of his skin. His father, an Irish FBI agent, Scott grapples with rebellion as he struggles with being “the face of the race.

Leon’s direction borrows heavily from the successful stage production but ultimately feels like material better delivered on the stage but Washington’s all-encompassing performance infused with her anguish over her son’s whereabouts, her husband’s departure, and the fear that despite Jamal being raised to their best of their ability that the world only sees him one way. American Son is their story but Leon’s story is universal.

Grade: B+