Not all festival releases journey down the same trajectory. Despite basking in the prestige of their acclaimed festivals, some titles get lost amidst the busy shuffle. Whether it’s a byproduct of bad reviews or controversy surrounding the film (in this case, both), certain releases never reach the airwaves they intend to. That’s where Nate Parker’s latest vehicle American Skin comes in to play, finally hitting release after a 2019 festival run. Parker’s passionate attempt to re-energize a vital conversation isn’t without promise, but the writer/director gets in his own way with heavy-handed delivery.
American Skin follows Lincoln (Nate Parker), a Marine veteran working as a school janitor while trying to mend his relationship with his son. When his son is killed by a police officer (Beau Knapp) found innocent without standing trial, he takes matters into his own hands by storming the police office. One way or another, Lincoln seeks justice for the crimes of a broken system.
Lincoln’s story has become an all-too-familiar tale of injustice and inequality. After a year in which police brutality took the forefront across the globe, Parker’s bold continuation of an essential topic certainly presents some resonance. Every frame of American Skin radiates with emotion, oftentimes captivating audience’s through the film’s sheer force of power.
He imbues a volatile passion that serves as a stark reflection of black American’s lingering frustration and pain (after seeing some films treat the subject matter with mere ambivalence, I’m glad there’s energy where it counts most). There’s also promise in Parker’s mockumentary approach, with the intimate framing highlighting the raw performance work present during the tense standoff (Parker elevates boilerplate mechanics through real-world stakes while ensuring the narrative never drifts into exploitative territory).
American Skin preaches several agreeable declarations, yet political correctness doesn’t equate to an assured final product. Parker’s unkempt emotive streak morphs from a strength to a weakness once the heavy-handed writing comes into play. Almost every scene strains for thoughtful platitudes about race relations and the broken nature of our justice system. Under Parker’s hands, these significant topics combust into a series of melodramatic frames.
A script chock-full of one-dimensional characters manifest courtroom drama into painfully simplistic exchanges. I wish Parker allowed his resonate subject matter to speak for itself rather than constantly tripping over flat soliloquies (so many scenes read of the character’s shouting at the audience rather than relaying any authentic conversation). Talented actors like Theo Rossi and Omari Hardwick display their immense abilities, but their portrayals left me wishing they had more to work with.
Putting aside Parker’s controversial background, the writer/director seems over his head fulfilling the premise’s required tactfulness. The mockumentary approach lacks thoughtful craftsmanship, with Parker’s confused vision often tripping over itself due to some noticeable inconsistencies (this falls into the common found-footage trope of not knowing who is filming at every moment). He dances between refined framing and amateurish shakiness without ever picking a clear direction. Instead, every frame is drowned out by over-zealous score choices that yell its messages from the top of the auditorium, including an over-the-top ending that reaches laughably self-righteous territory.
American Skin possesses the bones of accomplished and essential work. It’s just a shame that Nate Parker continually gets in his own way, playing his material at full volume until it craters into empty bombast.
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