Champions of actor and filmmaker Nate Parker — including Spike Lee, who is “presenting” Parker’s sophomore effort, “American Skin” and promoting it in its controversial premiere slot at the Venice Film Festival — would rather that we talk about his work rather than about allegations from an incident that took place decades ago.
So, let’s talk about the work: “American Skin” is a clunky, heavy-handed film that takes a pressing contemporary issue and flattens it under two genres the writer-director seems ill-equipped to handle — the mockumentary and the courtroom drama.
Is the shooting of unarmed black and brown people by police officers, who then go unpunished, a pressing issue? Absolutely. Does Parker address this issue with skill or subtlety or urgency or competence? Barely.
As camouflage for what appears to be a fairly low-budget production, Parker frames the movie as being a film-student project; what we are ostensibly watching is footage shot by Jordin (Shane Paul McGhie, “What Men Want”), who is making a documentary about Lincoln Jefferson (Parker), an Iraq vet whose 14-year-old son was shot a year earlier during a traffic stop. (The car-cam and body-cam footage of the shooting yields the most powerful moments of “American Skin.”)
Jordin follows Lincoln and his estranged wife Tayana (Milauna Jackson, “How to Get Away With Murder”) to the courthouse for the results of the grand jury investigation of Mike Randall (Beau Knapp, “Seven Seconds”), the officer who shot their son; Randall is exonerated and reinstated, leading to riots. Linc turns to his army buddy Derwood (Omari Hardwick) and other friends for help, and before Jordin and his crew know what’s going on, the students are filming a hostage situation at a police station, one in which Lincoln plans to put Randall on trial for the death of his child.
There’s certainly an idea for a movie here, but it’s one that’s undercut at nearly every turn, from the straw-man/mouthpiece arguments Parker’s script puts into the mouths of most of the characters (including policemen and convicts alike) to the film’s periodic abandonment of the student-footage gimmick. (Jordin winds up delivering a lengthy monologue — during which, yes, he utters the film’s title — and by the end of it, there are have been far more camera angles than there supposedly are cameras in the room.)
One of the cringiest moments of Parker’s directorial debut, “The Birth of a Nation,” involved playing Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” over footage of lynched men, as though the visual weren’t horrifying enough on its own, or as if matching that song to that footage wasn’t redundant and obvious. His instinct for overplaying the musical cues continues in “American Skin,” with composer Henry Jackman (“Detective Pickachu”) bombastically underlining and italicizing moments that don’t need the extra emphasis.
The cast features some talented players (including Theo Rossi), but no one’s been given a character to play; the script offers no one any depth beyond the function they serve to the plot. Hardwick manages to make the most of what he’s been given, but the ensemble generally ranges from the passable to the downright embarrassing. (The performers playing on-camera news correspondents all seem particularly out of their depth.) The makers of “The Hate U Give” managed to tackle this difficult topic while also building characters and placing them in a specific context in a way that this film never bothers to do.
The issue of police shootings and racial profiling deserves more sensitive and more intelligent treatment than “American Skin,” which combines the worst features of a clumsy “12 Angry Men” knock-off and a direct-to-DVD thriller.