American Skin is a smug, self-congratulatory vanity project that is sledgehammer-subtle and utterly depthless.
Actor Nate Parker took the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by storm with his directorial debut The Birth of a Nation, which chronicled the famed 1831 slave rebellion led by preacher Nat Turner. The film was met with rave reviews by attendees and resulted in the biggest acquisition deal in Sundance history at that time. Upon its national release ten months later, the film was met with utter indifference by critics and audience members alike, both of whom were in complete agreement that the emperor indeed had no clothes. That assessment is confirmed with Turner’s follow-up effort, American Skin, a film that debuted two years ago at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and which was finally picked up for distribution by Vertical Entertainment, though the film boasts a curious lack of presence on the distributor’s official website. One need only view the final product — an embarrassing and ham-fisted production posing as a topical provocation on police brutality and race relations in modern American society — to understand why. What is meant to be a righteous howl of racial indignation instead takes on the shape of a classroom presentation courtesy of an ill-prepared student whose knowledge of the charged subject matter is limited to Wikipedia articles and old episodes of Law & Order. The end result wouldn’t be quite so offensive if Parker didn’t present his material in such a smug and self-congratulatory manner, as if his rhetoric was not only enlightening, but revelatory. This is the type of film where a character questions if police target low-income neighborhoods and another solemnly intones, “No, black neighborhoods,” while dramatic music fills the soundtrack and the other actors on screen gasp out loud, as if shaken to their cores by this obvious semantic shift.
Parker has given himself the plum role of a grieving father who, seeking justice on behalf of his 13-year-old son who was brutally murdered at the hands of a police officer during a routine traffic stop, takes the entire precinct hostage and creates a kangaroo court that will determine the ultimate fate of the accused cop. This results in prolonged discussions of racism and classism that are delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and contain about as much depth as a Fox News segment. It would be easy to say that the film is at least well-intentioned, but Parker invests far too much in presenting his character as some sort of messianic truth-teller, brought to this earth to right the wrongs of an oppressed people. By film’s end, it becomes clear that this is nothing more than a vanity project of epic proportions, as Parker is bathed in beatific white light artfully streaming through Venetian blinds while his accused tearfully says to him, “I feel like you have lifted a weight off my shoulders. For the first time in my life, I am questioning nothing.” That any of the actors were able to get through this farce with a straight face is a testament to their professionalism, but that Parker actually believes the uniform of a school janitor would consist of slim-fit chinos and a skintight polo is symptomatic of his absolute ignorance when it comes to the everyday struggles of the common man. And then, of course, there’s Parker’s choice to frame the film as a documentary courtesy of a grad student completing his thesis, which allows his cinematic shortcomings to go unchecked (of which there are too many to address in any sort of detail here). Ultimately, American Skin proves that the path from the birth of a nation to the death of thought-provoking contemporary cinema is indeed a short one.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | January 2021.