American Skin review: Nate Parker is noble victim in compromised comeback | Film

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If there exists a cursed cinema at the Venice film festival, it is surely the Sala Casino, the smallest theatre on site, with its big steel door and its exposed white wall and a queuing system that leaves its guests broiling for an hour in the afternoon sun. It was here, two years ago, that they screened the latest James Toback, just weeks before the guillotine came down. And it is here, this year, where they play the new film from Nate Parker. The Sala Casino is like the roach motel. The pictures check in but they may not check out.

It’s a far cry from the red carpet that was rolled out for Parker’s 2016 debut, The Birth of a Nation, which screened at Sundance and was promptly snapped up by Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking sum. Big things were predicted for the actor-director. But the resurfacing of a 1999 college rape trial (in which he was eventually acquitted), together with his own defiant public stance on the issue made Parker a pariah. Now he’s playing in the graveyard, forlornly reaching for the stars.

Ostensibly American Skin is a drama about police brutality in black communities, a serious subject that merits serious attention. Ideally we’d review the film in isolation, entirely separate from the back-story of its creator. But the thing itself is so clotted, so strident and so thickly cloaked in self-pity that its impassioned story risks becoming worryingly self-serving. This interpretation isn’t helped by Parker’s decision to cast himself in the leading role of Linc Jefferson, a noble hero driven to breaking point by a miscarriage of justice. If he’s only felt able to keep himself in the background, his film might have been a good deal more effective.

Then again maybe not, because there are other problems here too. American Skin comes saddled with a clunky, schematic conceit which involves a student film-maker (Shane Paul McGhie) shooting a fly-on-the-wall documentary as Linc returns fire on the white cops who killed his 14-year-old son. Specifically this involves him storming the San Vicilo police department and putting the shooter (Beau Knapp) on trial, with the jury cobbled together with secretaries, a parking attendant and a few non-violent offenders who have been let out of the cells. “This can’t fix it,” bleats the student film-maker, which no doubt is the case. But when the judiciary’s rotten and the land is institutionally racist, one kangaroo court is as good as the next.

High-concept schlock pulls the crowds for a reason and Parker’s set-up certainly grabs us by the lapels. The handling, however, is as flat as a pancake, paying laborious lip-service to both sides of the debate, while an over-insistent score keeps dipping in like a highlighter pen to emphasise the really important lines of dialogue. No one in real life speaks the way they do in this film. No genuine drama is this crudely ordered drama, with its telegraphed turnabouts and conveniently-placed confessions, all building to a stage-managed plea for tolerance and unity.

Inside the police department, the jury deliberate. The case is so all-consuming, it’s testing their reserves. “It’s not plain. It’s not simple,” sighs a white juror, whereas American Skin is just that. It’s argument’s compromised; it won’t hold up in court. I fear the film may remain locked inside the Sala Casino.

Source: The Guardian
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