When I think about American Skin, I think of those tarred and feathered, the black bodies dangled over scorching hot flames, their limbs dipped and torched, their “American” skin charred black. This skin, which too often acts as wrapping paper for the murdered, is America.
Director, writer and producer Nate Parker depicts America in the skin of a black father, Lincoln Jefferson whose fourteen-year-old son, Kajani, is murdered by police. Jefferson is an ex-military man, who fought for a country that would systemically disenfranchise him after two tours in Iraq, and, after waiting a year for a verdict, sends the man who murdered his son back to work. Though a witness to his son’s murder, Jefferson is made to surrender to a whitened version of the truth that distorts Kajani Jefferson’s murder into an accidental death.
Just like Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, amongst countless others, Jefferson loses his son for a second time, and he is left to live the rest of his life with a noose commensurate to the weight of his son’s corpse around his neck. Though Kajani’s murderer gets off free, he, like the black families and communities who lose loved ones and the physical presence of neighborhood griots, a smiling acquaintance, etc, is to bear a life sentence. He is to bear the weight of an American skin tarred and feathered in a false sense of a white supremacist “duty” that killed his son.
The film’s depiction was almost too real for anyone of African descent who experienced these verdicts countless times. It need not be your brothers, sisters, mother, or father, but they are all our people. The verdicts exacerbate an irreconcilable pain.
The film does a remarkable job displaying the complexities of what it means to be black in an anti-black space. From the social and systemic pressure to pursue peace to the black male face of white views selected to speak to and for the slain black, to the fury toward the audacity of anti-blackness, Parker does a good job vindicating black perspectives that become heavy in juxtaposition to a media that seeks to lighten and “whiten” black facts into the fiction of white truth.
This reconfiguration of truth is what engenders both the film and the trial Jefferson demands.
The black militia that Jefferson assembles in pursuit of justice for his son’s murder personifies the fist synonymous with that cliche Booker T. Washington said: “In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Jefferson’s actions, of course, do not correspond to Washington’s overall ideology. These words however do caption Parker’s depiction of black unity despite the diversity in ideology. The film proves a partial depiction of black power intertwined with a reconciliatory narrative, which makes it the story of terror immersed in the “American Skin” of the racist entertainment industry.
Here are 7 takeways from the film:
- “I Want my Son”: The word closure surfaces when Jefferson finds himself questioned about his motive for placing the police precinct on lockdown. This word use resonates because closure is something that the African-descended inherits at birth. Whether seeking, or even cognitively curious about the names and faces of their unarchived ancestors, or their unpaid wages, closure is something so many of our people have died without reconciling. It is an undeserved burden, but a burden nonetheless. So when Jefferson says that he “wants his son” when the negotiator calls to access the stakes, his words reference black desire for the unattainable. His words elucidate that perhaps our greatest dearth as a people is seeking what can never be furnished. We want what they could never give back; they take the invaluable.
- Re-thinking the American “criminal:” In re-thinking the American concept of truth, it is essential to reconsider how all societal labels function. The police labeled Lincoln and Kajani as “criminals” based on their color, a notion that Parker seeks to reverse with a depiction of those in orange as bearing more intellect and reason than those paid to implement this behavior.
- The Trial: This sequence was perhaps the most difficult to watch for those of African-descent. The scene does an excellent job illustrating that those with the most knowledge on the situation are often not given proper means or context to articulate their expertise. Lincoln gives his son the defense he needed with the passion too often missing for the dead and disfigured black person. The exchange between blacks and non-blacks, and even the latin interlude where half of the conversation is obscured to anyone not fluent in Spanish, is a conversation that plagues our existence globally. This exchange illuminates that what should constitute an axiom, almost always turns into a makeshift trial where blacks must defend themselves from the daggers of fiction made fact in this anti-black space.
- Jefferson’s final act: I won’t say much on this besides Jefferson’s earthly departure illuminates that its not that revolutionaries are murdered, it’s that there is no place for them in this world. Additionally, the revolutionary is put on earth to revolt, to shake things up. There life attains its deserved longevity in legacy. This depiction proved painfully accurate and quite poignant.
There is a moment when Lincoln Jefferson is looking between the blinds out with a gun on his shoulder, reminiscent of the famous image of the late Malcolm X in a similar position with a shotgun. The image evokes a nationalism that the film only partially demonstrates.
Now, onto the parts of the film that made my eyebrows raise.
- The Miseducation of the White Militia: The film implements a plethora of discussion on police functionality throughout its showcase. These discussions mirror colloquial exchanges throughout the nation. The first phrase that stands out is: “police officers have a dangerous job.” This statement is an insult to the black collective who are consistently placed in danger by police officers. Police officers are only seen to have dangerous jobs by those who they exist to protect. To everyone else, they are the danger. The second phrase that stands out to me is: “Police officers don’t wake up wanting to kill.” I have heard this argument plenty of times, but I will be honest with you, I do not believe it. Police officers are soldiers of white supremacy who sign up for the makeshift power of the white militia. Regardless of the color of the police officer, they are practitioners of anti-blackness. Thus, black casualties are not a “perk” but why, I would argue, many, if not most, sign up for the job. Though for many this “perk” may take the form of a subconscious desire, it’s that buried for most. It’s likely the source of a “bond” between soldiers of white supremacy.
- White Supremacy Presides: The lead character’s name “Lincoln Jefferson” is no accident. Parker’s lead character takes the last names of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom had an interesting relationship to racism and slavery. Both of whom were racist. Lincoln “freed the slaves” to actualize his own agenda, an agenda that was neither pro-black nor tied to beliefs of an equitable American experience for those of African descent. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, of whom he raped and fathered children. Together, they illuminate why “president” has always been a derogatory term rooted in anti-blackness, yet the anti-blackness contigent with their subtle reference “presides” ovee the film. Nevertheless, I won’t get into the other indecencies aligned with each man, but I will say that both men, in their contemporized references, delineate America’s effort to tan its skin with a fictionalized version of facts. Lincoln and Jefferson are large components of the nation’s effort to romanticize a turbulent past, and their juxtaposition to the film’s lead character complicates what appeared to be the film’s message from its trailer.
- A Lesson Learned: This message is perhaps most complicated by the offending officer’s apparent moment-of-enlightenment after Jefferson points a loaded gun at his head. This moment comes after the court Jefferson assembles finds the officer guilty, and after said officer calls his wife and child. (He too has a son.) It’s not shocking that Jefferson does not shoot the officer just as it is not shocking that everyone makes it out alive but Jefferson.
The moment that seems to “humble” a domestic terrorist, seems to be Parker’s version of Malcolm X’s claims that if (and that if is emphasized) there is any hope for the white man, it is through Islam. Parker’s revision seems to be, if there is any hope for white understanding, it is being in the position of the slain. I’ll be honest, not sure that I believe that after being convicted, sentenced to death, but given mercy, that a white police officer would offer to walk out with a grieving black father and, in his defense, proclaim that he is unarmed. This depiction reminds me of Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, where a black man sentenced to death humanizes the white guard. It is not the job of the black archivist to employ black pain to humanize whites any more than it is the job of the dead to make life easier for the living.
This depiction, like the lead character’s name, leads me to believe that the film is a reconciliatory gesture used to issue a sort of pseudo empathy between whites in blacks under the umbrella of Americanism. These “kumbaya” or false unity moments at the end of culturalyl sensitive films are not only unrealistic, but prove synonymous to watching the slain die another death, watching the skin of an American narrative be tarred and feathered, or burned alive.
Additionally, I can not help but think that the film functions as a sort of an apology following the portrait of black power painted in Parker’s previous feature Birth of a Nation (2016). Or, perhaps this depiction reflects the cost of telling our story amongst the flames of four-hundred-year-old rage.
Did you watch it? What are your thoughts?