Once the initial wave of Sundance hype around Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation cooled, audiences were left with the clear impression that the film, an account of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, used the evil legacy of slavery largely as window-dressing for the actor-director’s own vain spotlight role. Every aesthetic decision made behind the camera served only to embellish the simplistic portrait being painted in front of it.

Parker only doubles down on this approach with American Skin, a bizarre hybrid of genres that the director handles poorly on their own terms and with total abandon when attempting to fuse them. Trading a poor approach to history to a saccharine, needlessly over-explained summary of the present, the film begins with Marine veteran Lincoln Jefferson (Parker), who is pulled over one night in a white neighborhood while driving with his teenage son, Kajani (Tony Espinosa). Lincoln immediately puts his hands visibly on the steering wheel and announces every move to the police, while the younger, testy Kajani begins to film the increasingly hostile police, which sets off a screaming argument that cuts to black just before one of the officers, Mike Randall (Beau Knapp), shoots and kills the boy.

The remainder of the movie is set up as a film-within-a-film in the form of a student thesis documentary shot by undergraduate Jordin (Shane Paul McGhie) on the subject of police brutality and the cops not being charged for Kajani’s death. This means that Parker swiftly adopts the visual language of streaming-era issue documentaries, or at least tries to; in truth, the numerous snap-zooms and camera bobs on even talking-head interviews hew far closer to the mockumentary parody of “The Office” than a straight work of nonfiction. This lends a subliminal air of comedy to deadly serious material, and it doesn’t help when Parker goes out of his way to endlessly explain the realities of Black life in America ostensibly to other Black characters. This is true of how he speaks to Jordin and the young man’s crew as well as memories of his conversations with Kajani, who is portrayed as almost being too smart for his own good as he rhetorically defends his civil rights as an American as his father places asterisks on those liberties.

Lincoln, ostensibly talking to other Black characters, always sounds like Parker himself addressing clueless whites. Yet, by this point in time, even the most sheltered white person with anything less than willful and overt racist denial has been thoroughly exposed to the endless barrage of footage of police brutality and discrimination that has been so easily documented in the smartphone era. This makes all of Lincoln’s lectures, as well as the generally hectoring tone of the film’s dialogue and scenarios writ large, unbearably redundant. For their part, the other characters exist in a state between naivete and the precocious wisdom of bright youth, though this too backfires; touring Kajani’s room, Jordin gestures at a huge poster of Malcolm X and observes in his best Captain Obvious tone, “I see he was into Malcolm.”

Things take a turn for the truly absurd, though, when Lincoln one day rounds up the student filmmakers and takes them to a group of Black veterans who have decided to help Lincoln get justice in an unjust world by executing an armed takeover of the local police precinct to which the acquitted cops belong. This shatters the already threadbare, half-assed commitment to the idea of a fake doc, leaving the second half to awkwardly jump between the students’ footage and more objectively oriented images. Making matters worse, this putative action thriller almost immediately pivots to the true aim of the plot: Lincoln staging a mock trial for Officer Randall to get the day in court he never received when the policeman wasn’t charged.

If Parker introduced the idea that Lincoln could be so broken that he could turn to a chaotic act with a high potential for collateral damage with his invasion of the precinct, the trial soon re-establishes the character as a paragon of moral virtue. Freeing some nonviolent convicts in holding cells to act as the jury, Lincoln earnestly tries to make everyone involved—from the ad-hoc jury to the defendant himself—treat this seriously and as if it were any other trial he might lose. That he is brandishing a pistol as he calmly explains rules to the convicts and asks for civility from the civilian precinct employees is never presented as a dark irony. The trial itself compounds the embarrassing over-explanations of the first act with interactions between characters who exist as mouthpieces for various opinions. The cops loudly bemoan how people of color see race in everything while the mostly Black jurors ask increasingly broad questions about social ills; in one ludicrous exchange, a cop’s blithe statement that Black people should “get over” slavery is met with scorn not only by the convicts but the one female cop in the building, who suddenly sits up straight and asks if he would say the same about women’s rights.

Throughout all of this, the characters are addressing you, the viewer, as if you were cryogenically frozen some time right before the Willie Horton ad aired and were thawed in time to be baffled by omnipresent discourse on the ongoing role of racism in shaping American institutions. Parker, so interested as playing the voice of clear-eyed wisdom, instead sounds like a substitute teacher accidentally reading off the lesson plan you covered last week. Once again, everything in the film exists to exalt Parker’s protagonist, and by extension Parker himself. But American Skin succeeds only in elevating him to the position of one of America’s worst, most self-satisfied working filmmakers.

Once again, Nate Parker approaches the harrowing past and present of America’s racial injustice solely through the prism of his own ego and self-promotion.
20 %
Unbearable and condescending
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