In 1999 actor Nate Parker was charged with rape, but acquitted of all charges in 2001. In 2016 Parker made a comeback by making his writing and directing debut, while also starring in the Nat Turner biopic “The Birth Of A Nation”. The film premiered in competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, as Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the worldwide rights to the film in what was at the time the largest deal at the film festival. At Sundance it won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize, where it was praised for its directing, acting and cinematography.
While “The Birth Of A Nation” was making it’s rounds during it’s press tour, Parker’s rape accusations resurfaced and caused the film to disappoint in theaters and gross an unfair $16 million. It was a stunning debut as a filmmaker and earned a spot (at least on my list) as one of 2016’s best films. Now here we are five years later and Nate Parker is back with his second coming. The filmmaker had vowed that whatever movie he decides to direct after “The Birth Of A Nation” will “address things that need attention”. Parker does just that as he stars, writes and directs “American Skin”.
“American Skin” has been in limbo waiting to see the light of day, as it first premiered at the Venice Film Festival back in 2019. While the delay hasn’t made the movie any less timely, as it hits hard to the recent events of George Floyd. The films delay has put some distance from Parker’s personal controversy, hopefully the settlement will let the movie be discovered and not suffer the same fate that “The Birth Of A Nation” had.
“American Skin” is presented by filmmaker Spike Lee and produced by actor David Oyelowo (“Selma”). Nate Parker presents the movie through the lens of a student filmmaker, Jordin (Shane Paul McGhie), who is following up on the police killing of a 14 year old African American boy during a traffic stop a year earlier. Jordin has come to interview the boy’s father, Lincoln Jefferson (Parker), a Marine veteran who is grieving his son’s loss. After the officer who shot his shot is acquitted of all charges, Lincoln decides to take matters into his own hands and seek justice, with a camera crew there to document what transpires. A hostage situation ensues, as Lincoln conducts his own trial and tries to force the police to confront what happened.
Parker gives “American Skin”, a you are there perspective by directing the film with dash cam video, documentary found footage and of a traditional thriller. Parker isn’t interested in telling a traditional story or sparing us any details, such as how did they get access to all these assault rifles or how they planned out the whole hostage situation so quickly. Parker just rather give us social commentary on “Black Lives Matter” and police brutality in the form of a thriller. “American Skin” is not a subtle movie and Parker doesn’t sugarcoat his message about systemic injustice, or the anger and desperation that fuels it. Parker’s whole goal is to challenge systems of oppression by promoting much-needed dialogue between law enforcement and community members of color.
Running at a brisk 90 minutes, the first thirty minutes captures Lincoln’s pain in having lost his son. But Parker then shifts gears and turns it into a thriller that becomes a mixture of classics like “13 Angry Men”, “Dog Day Afternoon”, Denzel Washington’s “John Q” and Spike Lee’s “Inside Man”. Parker takes some really big chances and the films third act, where the trial takes place is just one of them. The trial seems ludicrous; as the hostage situation turns into a court case presided over by Lincoln, who brings in a bunch of inmates to be jurors, while the cops sit on trial handcuffed. Meanwhile, documentarian Jordin is there to film the entire trial as part of Lincoln’s master plan.
While seeming ludicrous, the trial turns out to be incredibly effective and vital to the entire movie. The trial is where Parker’s writing is at it’s strongest and he doesn’t pain everyone in black and white terms. Parker doesn’t showcase the cops as evil and in the wrong, while the victims are purely innocent. Instead, Parker gives the police a voice and let’s them express their fears, concerns and their biases. They come off as real police officers and Parker provides a real-sounding discussion between the groups.
“American Skin” immerses us in the terror, agony, rage and thirst for justice that have come by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We shouldn’t need a movement to tell us that the killing of an innocent civilian by police officers is systematically wrong. But even with the recent events of George Floyd, it’s clear that is not where we are in America. That’s exactly why we need Nate Parker’s “American Skin”.
It’s a movie that is meant to push buttons and Parker’s racially-charged thriller is justified, tense, provocative and bold as Parker seeks to address heavy issues. While his previous film “The Birth Of A Nation” is a much better film in all departments. I hope people give “American Skin” a chance, like they eventually did with his previous directorial effort. “American Skin” stands as a testament to Nate Parker’s urgency as a filmmaker and only time will tell if this is truly Nate Parker’s comeback (although I think he redeemed himself with “The Birth Of A Nation”). But “American Skin” suggests that Nate Parker has much to say and I can say that the film will stay as a runner up to be one of the years best films. Highly recommended. See this one!
GRADE: ★★★★1/2☆ (4.5 out of 5)