American Skin and the allure of redemption narratives

With Nate Parker’s new film American Skin, the theatrics around the release rather than in the film itself is where the intrigue lies.

American Skin is without doubt a powerful film. Parker is an all-round talent and his casting crew assembled a cast who collectively deliver a riveting, timely and technically proficient product. 

It is a movie sold well by its trailer but one whose twist may not satisfy and may very well exploit the hunger for justice that sees black audiences often turn to art to satisfy or soothe.

Parker’s last self-directed, self-written, self-produced film was The Birth of a Nation, in which he starred as rebel slave Nat Turner, who leads a rebellion but is sold out by another slave and condemned to death. The informer is seen crying as Turner is sentenced and ends up fighting for the Northern Army at the film’s end.

For all that it overcame to even exist as a film of its nature, The Birth of a Nation was overshadowed by the resurfacing of a 1999 incident in which Parker was charged with the rape of a college student along with a friend, Jean Celestin, with whom he later worked to write The Birth of a Nation. Parker was acquitted in a 2001 trial based on his testimony of having had consensual sex with his accuser previously, while Celestin’s conviction was overturned after the woman did not want to testify again in a new trial in 2005. The woman, 18 years old at the time of the incident, died by suicide in 2012. 

For some, Parker, 41, remains “cancelled”, his art forever marred by his actions. For others, he is an Oscar hopeful whose run was interrupted by a media lynching for a scandal from which he has never shied away.

His latest film, executive produced by Spike Lee, bears some marks of being Parker’s tentative steps back into the Hollywood fray. In some interviews, Parker has been flanked by Lee, who riffs about the greatness of the film in his position as a decoy for Parker. At the Venice Film Festival, Lee goes off on a tangent about how, to this day, people stop him on the street to ask him why Mookie threw the garbage bin through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria in Do The Right Thing following the police murder of Radio Raheem. Watch American Skin to see why.

In other interviews, Parker framed American Skin as a teachable moment in which, if even one cop hesitates at the point of pulling the trigger, we would have arrived at a better world.

However, the trope of pleading for mercy, or at least reason, at the hands of the oppressor — an oppressor whose system dexterously evolves in order to subjugate more efficiently each passing day — is a ruse unworthy of a filmmaker of Parker’s aptitude. Moreover, it is hardly convincing at the level of character (Parker plays ex-US Marine Lincoln Jefferson in the film, a veteran of two Iraqi War instalments who loses a son at the hands of a policeman). 

For all its timelessness and moments of believability, it inexplicably succumbs to the reflex of acquiescence to the status quo. It’s anachronistic when considered against its moment of release, not to mention a tad insensitive in the face of real anger levelled at an intransigent American state, in particular the police system. 

In the press, Parker has been upfront about the mentorship role Lee occupies in his career. It is a proximity that has helped Parker re-emerge following the dampened response to The Birth of a Nation, and one that is creatively murky, given Lee’s own recent sanitising advertising work with the New York City Police Foundation, an organisation linked to the New York Police Department. 

Interestingly, on screen, Lee’s more recent films, Chi-raq, BlacKKKlansmen and Da 5 Bloods have been something of a departure from the more critically engaged tone of his earlier work. One wonders, then, what influence Lee’s mentorship has on Parker’s psyche. 

But while Parker retains a technical vitality long abandoned by Lee, it’s at the level of story and narrative arc that one worries that Parker is being coaxed back into the corridors of mainstream palatability. By pulling its punches, American Skin stops short of rising to the occasion, succumbing instead to the gimmicky allure of redemption narratives.

American Skin is available on Amazon Prime

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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