Actor and filmmaker Nate Parker is a divisive figure. Some will never give him a fair break after the allegations that came out after he sold The Birth of a Nation at the Sundance Film Festival. Others will see him as an unduly persecuted figure and look to support his comeback with American Skin. Personally, I believe his accuser but will judge his movies on their merits. Unfortunately for Parker, his sophomore feature American Skin is wildly mediocre, wasting a premise with some promise. His anger and passion for justice are to be commended, but his ability to make it a compelling story is not at all in evidence here. No matter what you think of the man, it’s safe to say that his flick is not up to snuff.
American Skin has the best of intentions, but Parker isn’t up to the task of executing his vision. At every turn, the movie goes to extremes when a more measured tone would make his points far more impactful. It’s all emotion, but no handle on the material. It’s like watching a child wail about a problem on the playground. Sure, they’re in the right, but the way they’re going about trying to get your attention does them no favors. Obviously, the epidemic of police violence against citizens of color and the Black Lives Matter movement are far more important, but the point still stands. Parker misses the mark by a long shot.
Presented as a student film, the plot follows Lincoln Jefferson (Parker), or Linc, in the aftermath of his son Kajani’s death during a stop by the police. Pulled over by two cops while picking up Kajani from a friend’s house, the situation escalates until Officer Mike Randall (Beau Knapp) discharges his weapon. A year later, Jordin King (Shane Paul McGhie) is making a documentary about Linc’s experience. A former Marine, Linc became a school janitor in order to get Kajani into a better school. When the Grand Jury opts not to indict Randall, Linc’s quiet nature gives way to something more fillled with rage and a need to be heard
Driven to pursue a deferred form of justice, Linc and friends, including Omar (Omari Hardwick) take matters into their own hands. They take the police station hostage, determined to give Randall the trial he never received. Forced to answer for his actions, Randall is defended by a fellow cop in Officer Dominic Reyes (Theo Rossi), while Linc prosecutes. What follows is a debate many in America have had, with all the subtlety of a debate between Fox News and MSNBC personalities. It all builds to an ending meant to be shocking and generate even more debate, but just comes across as telegraphed and lazy.
Nate Parker has always been a compelling actor. Just watch the underrated About Alex for evidence of that. He’s good here, too, but Parker doesn’t give any of his cast personality traits. They’re thinly written, under-developed, and just exist to spout his dialogue. Promising young actor Shane Paul McGhie is absolutely wasted, while the likes of Omari Hardwick, Beau Knapp, and Theo Rossi fare no better. Wasted potential is a recurring theme here, as you might imagine.
As a filmmaker, Parker is still a work in progress. Henry Jackman‘s score is ominous and shows just how serious this all is, but his writing and direction can’t keep up. Much like with The Birth of a Nation, he can’t execute the material in a way that allows you to feel as intended. The writing is amateurish and consistently feels like you’re being lectured in the most obvious way possible. From behind the camera, the found footage/mockumentary choice could have paid dividend, but like everything else, it comes off as an afterthought to Parker trying to state his points as loudly as possible.
American Skin wants to say something important, and that’s admirable. It’s simply done in too scattershot of a way to be even close to effective. Parker hasn’t honed his filmmaking to the point of being able to effectively sift through the detritus to find what works. In the end, despite his good intentions, this is a fairly wide misfire, leaving you to wonder what might have been…