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Nate Parker’s “American Skin” asks What is Justice?

By Torraine Walker

Nate Parker’s new film American Skin opens with an all too familiar American tragedy: Two African-American men in an encounter with police officers that results in one of the Black men losing his life. The following scenes depict the usual outcome of these real life situations: protests, an investigation that finds the officers use of lethal force justified. From there the film diverges from the expected arc of films centered on civil rights about what form justice takes when Black people decide to stop turning the other cheek.

Parker plays Lincoln Jefferson, a Gulf War veteran and working class father dealing with the rage and pain of witnessing his son’s killing and consumed by the idea of justice, along with the demasculinization forced onto Black men by a system that denies them the natural human feelings of anger and loss. That injustice leads him to organize a group of armed Black men to storm a police precinct and find the officer who killed his son. What follows is a courtroom drama that harks back to 12 Angry Men and the revolutionary justice that follows every successful revolution. But beyond weighing the guilt of individual police officers, the film puts the American system on trial. The indictment is an unpleasant one, revealed in monologues about race, class, the propaganda we accept as truth and the unconscious bias created by institutionalized white supremacy that co-opts Black and Brown people to serve its interests. 

The film does an excellent job portraying how human beings can be driven to act when the lines between what is legal and what is just diverge. Omari Hardwick puts in an understated performance as a fellow veteran down for Lincoln’s cause, and Shane Paul McGhie’s Jordin feels like a representation of the cellphone and hashtag activism that allows you to be aware of but detached from the real life pain and suffering of Black people affected by overpolicing.

American Skin is an intimate film that attacks the psychology of dehumanization at the core of American racism. You wont come away with many feel-good moments about racial healing, but you will have the feeling that the ugly conversations about race that America wants to avoid are unavoidable. And all of those conversations won’t be peaceful.

American Skin is now playing in select theatres and on various streaming services including Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play Movies, and iTunes.

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