Why ‘American Son’ Director Kenny Leon Is ‘Radically Optimistic’ Amid Unrest Over Racial Injustice (Video)

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “This is our moment to really make some progress. It appears that the world is listening in a different way, so I’m hopeful of that,” Leon says

This story about Kenny Leon first appeared in the Limited Series & Movies issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. It took eight minutes and 46 seconds for the world to change. It took watching an eight minute, 46 second video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, killing him, for some people to open their eyes to the injustices and horror that Black American’s face and fear everyday. Some of us have known all our lives. Kenny Leon, the director of Netflix’s “American Son,” is one of those people. Leon won the Tony in 2014 for his direction of Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun.” “American Son,” based on the Broadway play of the same name — which Leon also directed and former trial lawyer Christopher Demos-Brown wrote, is an all too familiar story. It follows a Black mother, played by Kerry Washington, and the pain she bears during one night in a police station while she and her estranged white husband try to figure out what happened to their missing Black son, who it turns out may or may not be in police custody after a traffic stop. Leon sat down with TheWrap to talk about “American Son” and the heightened conversations of race relations in America. This interview has been edit for length and clarity. Does this moment that we’re in since the murder of George Floyd feel any different? Well I remain radically optimistic about the possibilities and the potential of what can happen in this given moment. Being a product of generations of prayers and 400 years of injustices against African Americans in this country, I think this is our moment to really make some progress. It appears that the world is listening in a different way, so I’m hopeful of that. Do you think the audience that sees “American Son,” is not just listening, but hearing, and coming to the table trying to understand? I don’t know. But one thing I can say is in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been saying out loud, that we’re not a monolithic group. And I appreciate everybody’s effort to move the needle, whatever their platforms may be. If people were really to look at “American Son” and say that mothers, black mothers go through this every day in America where they don’t know if their son is gonna come home because of their relationship with law enforcement, and how painful that would be — and if everybody would just accept the fact that we’re all human, and we create these things that separate us race, gender, and all that’s not real — then we were to do that it will be a much better place not only for the person that is the victim of the injustice, but a better place for everybody. How much of yourself and your experiences — and Kerry as well — did you guys bring to it? I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, and I don’t know any other Black man who grew up in Florida who hasn’t been pulled over and disrespected by cops, thrown on the ground and handcuffed. That’s happened to me growing up six or seven times, and that’s become too real for most Black men in the country. So I bring that to the work. And then working with Kerry Washington, she taught me a lot about listening to women and understanding what life is like for a mother. She said to me, “Kenny, you got to remember that in this story, there’s me and then there’s three men with guns.” I tried to incorporate that. So even though a Black male directed it, it has a very female presence because I was trying to understand what women go through and what mothers go through. I have to give Kerry Washington all the props for that. The perspective and focus of “American Son” is certainly different, does that change the impact or understanding? I can’t imagine what any other group of storytellers would have done. But I’m making the work for the people who are alive sitting in the seats, taking in the story. I wanted people to not just see it as a story, but I wanted them to see themselves in this story, and to do something about the injustices in our country when mothers don’t see their kids come home, so I shot it from Kerry’s point of view. I want the viewers to feel what it feels for this mother to be in a police station at 4 a.m. not knowing what’s happened to her kid. I’ve seen this film, I don’t know probably 300 times, and every time I watch it I’m still hoping that it turns out a certain way, I’m still like, “Oh, please let this happen this way.” To read more of the Limited Series & Movies issue, click here. EmmyWrap Limited Series & Movies 2020