A Marine Searches for Answers After the Police Shoot His Son in 'American Skin'

Nate Parker American Skin
Actor, writer and director Nate Parker stars as Marine Corps veteran Lincoln Jefferson in "American Skin." (Vertical Entertainment)

Writer/director Nate Parker stars in "American Skin," a movie that deliberately aims to provoke a discussion about how law enforcement works in this country and whether it's the men and women on the street whom we should hold responsible.

"American Skin" is now available to buy on digital or rent via VOD.

Parker plays Lincoln Jefferson, a divorced Marine Corps veteran who's working as a janitor and sending his son KJ (Tony Espinosa) to private school. The father and son get pulled over as they drive through a wealthy neighborhood, and KJ insists on filming the traffic stop with his phone, over his father's objections.

You can figure out what happens next.

The film fast-forwards a year to the day when a grand jury declines to indict the police officers (Theo Rossi and Beau Knapp) for KJ's shooting death. As a student documentary crew films his reactions, Jefferson can't get past his son's death and decides to seek justice by taking over a police station and holding his own trial.

There are a couple of important things to consider when you see this movie.

First, it's in no way "realistic." Parker's not really suggesting that a father could lead a successful and relatively bloodless takeover of a police station. He's interested in a plot device that gets the law enforcement locked in a room with the dead boy's family and friends for the kind of unfiltered communication he believes is impossible with the media involved.

Second, "American Skin" was written and produced before 2020, which means that it was made before George Floyd, a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, the COVID-19 pandemic and a nearly successful takeover of the United States Capitol building. What probably felt like a daring and purely metaphorical plot two years ago now doesn't seem that disconnected from our actual reality.

Parker isn't trying to be subtle. His hero is a Marine whose name is "Lincoln Jefferson." He's a veteran who can only find work as a janitor. KJ is remarkably smart, curious and engaged with his schoolwork. He makes sure that there's zero gray area: These are good Americans whose mistake is being born Black.

He's also determined to let the police have their say. The officers are forced to reconsider their prejudices as they face a "legal proceeding" that Jefferson has designed to be stacked against them the way he thinks real courts are stacked against minority defendants.

When they stop a car like Jefferson's, the police are doing their jobs as assigned, and the movie is determined to show the strain that assignment puts on a man's conscience.

Would a real Marine lead an assault on police officers? If I'd written this article two weeks ago, I'd have said no way, but that was before the photos of Jan. 6.

Parker puts all his characters into a box and resolves an impossible situation with everyone coming to a greater understanding of the other side before a verdict is rendered. That's before a series of twists leads to an ending that's supposed to shock the audience into action.

"American Skin" is stagey and simplistic, but Parker may have a point there. There have been millions of words written and thousands of hours spent on cable TV trying to capture the subtleties of race and law enforcement in America. This movie lets everyone make a blunt and direct point and forces the other side to listen.

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