American Son Truly Honors The Experience Of Black Mothers In America
On Sunday morning I woke up to find my dad sitting at the island in my kitchen playing chess on his phone. He’d slept over in my new place and told me he’d hacked into my TV and found a really good movie. What that meant was he’d hit “Netflix” on my remote control and chosen “Brande” on the prompt screen that asks “Who’s Watching.” When the new film “American Son” popped up at the top of the page he pressed play and, as I was barely awake from my slumber, he couldn’t wait to tell me how much the film resonated with him.
“American Son” tells the story of Kendra Ellis-Connor, the mother of a missing 18-year-old boy. Based on the acclaimed Broadway play, the entire movie, which stars Kerry Washington, takes place inside a South Florida Police Station. Desperate for answers as to what has happened to her son, from the outset the fears and frustrations of being a Black mother in America are palpable.
My dad hadn’t actually come to town to visit me when he showed up at my apartment Saturday afternoon. He’d come to Atlanta to see about my 19-year-old brother. His mom had told him he could no longer stay with her because of his volatile behavior and when my dad pleaded with him to come stay with him a few hours away he refused. Without a way to contact him, my dad and his ex-wife were much like Kendra and her estranged husband Scott (Steven Pasquale) in the film: perpetually in fear of his whereabouts and well-being and unable to get any answers.
In the film, Kendra and Scott are dealing with forces larger than an angry, stubborn teenage boy trying to find his way however; they’re up against the prejudices of the boys in blue who are known to shoot first and ask questions later, if at all. Without giving too much away, there’s a marked difference in how Kendra and Scott are treated by police when they each seek out the truth in their own way. And driving home the point that the only color that seems to matter to the force is blue (except when it comes to perpetrators, of course), there’s an uncle Tom-like Black detective character reminiscent of real-life Black officers we’ve seen suddenly thrown into the spotlight when a Black boy has been murdered by an officer in an attempt to quell accurate accusations of racism.
As I sat through the 100-minute feature all I could think about was my ex-step-mom. Over the past couple of years, she’s become noticeably thinner, bordering on frail, under the stress my brother has put her through. Eager to do his own thing — which isn’t much of anything — he’s equally ignorant of what could happen to him as a young Black boy should he be caught smoking, drinking, or simply breathing in the wrong place at the wrong time in the south. Every time he doesn’t come home, she plays through scenarios which are always the worst case and it creates a level of stress and anxiety the body simply isn’t equipped to deal with over a long period of time, be it several hours in a police station or several months in your own home.
I’ve seen the mixed reviews about “American Son,” and while I could’ve done without some of the history ladden monologues more fitting for the play than a feature film — and even some of the dramatized outcries Kerry came to be criticized for as Olivia Pope — what I appreciated about the movie was that it honored and validated the experience of the Black mother. And I believe it did so in a way that any mother or father could relate to.
In America’s stripping of Black boys’ dignity and humanity when they find themselves on the wrong end of the criminal justice system, the grief of their parents, particularly their mothers, has been glossed over as well. Whether it’s the image of the “strong Black woman” and our ability to fight back in the midst of our pain or simply an inability for Black mothers to be humanized as well, the trauma of knowing the life of your Black son hangs in the balance of the police force is incessant. Not to mention the guilt of wondering if you told him everything he needs to know about being a Black boy in America who will be viewed as a man far before he is. Born out of that fear of culpability for not equipping your son for the realities of American society is a tendency to play the blame game. It doesn’t take long before Kendra and Scott begin to point fingers at one another to explain how they ended up where they are. It didn’t take long for my father and my brother’s mom to do the same.
Headlines about police brutality and Black boys being shot by police may have slowed somewhat, but for a Black mother facing the reality that her son’s life is in the hands of the force, everything slows down, and what this film did brilliantly was make that feeling real. Kendra is almost trapped inside of that police station, her life also hanging in the balance, as she begs and pleads to simply see her child and know that he is okay. Any parent who’s ever gotten a call that something has happened to their child knows that that’s the only answer anyone wants to hear. So, as much as this film paints the portrait of Black boys as American sons, it also holds a light up to Black women as American mothers. And for that reason I believe it deserves praise.