It’s no secret that African-Americans have been and are still subjected to systemic oppression and police brutality on a near-daily basis in the United States. The American government was founded on the idea that only white, rich land-owning men would have full rights, so it comes as no surprise that the government’s justice system would actively seek to disenfranchise (and in some cases, completely wipe out) the Black community. When the home video camera was made widely available to the masses, we finally saw footage evidence of what Black people had been calling out for centuries: deliberate, violent, and targeted profiling by our country’s sworn protectors based on the color of skin. Rodney King, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. These names and many others are now seared into the Black collective’s mind in the form of a racial trauma every person of African American descent carries with them.
And when we, as a country, respond to each heinous act of police brutality with suspicion, gaslighting, and victim vilification in the media, one is left to wonder if justice will ever truly be delivered. How can the Black community ever trust in a system that fails us so often? How do we seek justice and heal? What does that look like? Nate Parker, director-star of Birth of a Nation (2018), aims to answer the question in his second and newest release, American Skin.
The trailer opens with Lincoln Jefferson, a middle-aged Black Iraq-veteran (played by Parker), calmly sitting down to confront a visibly nervous white police officer in an interrogation room. The man wants to know if the officer remembers him. It’s clear that the officer does. The audience is transported back to the summer of 2017 via police car footage, showing a traffic stop by two white police officers of Lincoln (or Linc, as his friends call him) and his teenage son, Kajani. During a tense interaction, one of the officers shoots the teenager, killing him. Stricken with grief after a grand jury fails to convict the police officer responsible for Kajani’s death, Linc hijacks a student filmmaker’s project of his son’s murder and assembles a group from his community to do the only thing he feels he can do — take matters into his own hands.
This is not the first time a movie has grappled with the question: What happens when we decide the justice system can’t be trusted to protect our community and take matters into our own hands? Where do the lines of retribution and revenge blend? In the critically acclaimed movie A Time to Kill, we once again follow a father’s justice journey when the criminal system callously turns a blind out to blatant crime against a Black person in this country. The difference, it seems, is that in American Skin, the community rises as a whole (versus one individual) in response to an entire corrupt precinct in an “any means necessary” fashion. Parker showcases upfront and apologetically the raw human emotions that ripple through many African Americans when another dead Black body is showcased on the news, with no guarantee the killer will ever answer to their crime.
All too often, Black people are assured that the latest police killing will be dealt with swiftly and reasonably, only to be ultimately let down. It remains to be seen if American Skin, with its emotionally charged performance by Parker and its view into what modern-day violent resistance would look like, will be well received by the audiences. However, in our modern environment of civil unrest in the wake of social injustice, we owe it to ourselves to walk with Parker and hear what he has to say. With this latest addition to his filmography, Nate Parker reminds us that his unapologetic take on addressing white supremacy will be here to stay. American Skin releases in theaters on January 15, 2021.
—-Alisha Chamat is a freelance writer specializing in mental health, community, and digital spaces. She’s a logophile who enjoys reading science fiction, researching world history, and, in general, is a fan of all things nerdy.