'American Son' makes flawed but powerful leap to Netflix

Posted November 1, 2019 10:07 a.m. EDT

— "American Son" possesses considerable power in its premise, while wrestling with the claustrophobic aspects of transferring a stage play to the screen. Ultimately, the subject matter wins out, yielding a flawed but brisk 90-minute Netflix presentation that reunites the cast headed by Kerry Washington.

The entire drama unfolds within a Miami police station in the wee hours of the morning, where Washington's Kendra is introduced frantically calling her just-turned-18-year-old son, Jamal, who isn't answering. Desperate for answers, she vents at the officer on duty (Jeremy Jordan), who won't provide any useful information about her missing son.

The tension and friction build, and when the white cop tries to commiserate by saying that he has kids too, she snaps, "Any of them black?"

Enter Kendra's estranged husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale), subsequently arrives, and the emotional floodgates open -- not only about the fracture in their marriage, but the cultural component of raising a mixed-race child, and the different ways the two approached his upbringing and the dangers he faces as a young African-American man.

Directed by Kenny Leon (whose credits include the live TV productions of "Hairspray" and "The Wiz") from the play by Christopher Demos-Brown, "American Son" disgorges a whole lot of information in a compact timeframe, in a manner that feels conspicuously stagey and a trifle forced.

It's generally difficult to open up a play enough to suit the screen (a wholly different medium), losing the in-person nature of the experience. That challenge feels especially acute given the clenched nature of this material.

Fortunately, there's a whole lot of intensity packed into the former "Scandal" star's performance, as she and her husband debate over identity, profiling and their son growing up amid a mostly white circle of friends -- concerns that her spouse, in a moment of anger, dismisses as "victimhood psychobabble."

The dynamics change again when an African-American cop (Eugene Lee) finally enters the picture, offering his own insights before eventually bringing the story to its climax.

Like Netflix's telecast of Bruce Springsteen's Broadway show, there's something to be said for using the platform to bring theatrical experiences into the home, giving viewers the best seat in the house without the price of a ticket to New York.

The play generated a divided critical response, and simply in terms of logistics, "American Son" isn't an ideal production to make that leap; nevertheless, the project offers plenty to think about, in a way that lingers well after the curtain, as it were, comes down.

"American Son" premieres Nov. 1 on Netflix.

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