In 'American Son,' Kerry Washington Wants You To 'Let Yourself Be In This Nightmare'

Nov 2, 2019

American Son, a new film on Netflix, unfolds at a Miami police station, during the middle of the night, where a worried mother frets about her missing son, who is black. She's frustrated at the lack of information she gets from a police officer, who tells her he understands — he has kids, too.

But Kendra Ellis-Connor, played by Scandal star Kerry Washington, dismisses his grasp at empathy. She's certain that Officer Paul Larkin, a father to two young daughters, played by Jeremy Jordan, can't relate.

To her, the threats that fuel her fears for her son's safety manifest in the officer's questions that suggest racial profiling: ("Does he have any ... scars, tattoos, gold teeth, that kind of stuff? Street names?")

"It really bugs Kendra that he's already decided the kind of kid that her son is, just based on the fact that he has a black mom," Washington said in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition.

Washington said she signed on to reprise her onstage role in the new film, an adaptation of Christopher Demos-Brown's Broadway play of the same name in which she starred, in part to help break down audience barriers of entry — not everyone can afford to travel to New York to see a play or shell out money for a Broadway ticket.

"The opportunity to tell the play on screen and basically democratize theater in that way was really exciting for me," she said.

Washington said immersing oneself in this film can help inspire the viewer's empathy for the black parent's experience.


Interview Highlights

On relating to the character of Jamal

I realized that a big part of what drew me to the material was also my deep understanding of Jamal. That I was a kid from a working-class family who went to a very prestigious private school and had to navigate some of those treacherous, cultural investigations or discovery process of Who am I? or How do I fit in? and all the different worlds that I belong to.

On the pressure to succeed as a black woman

There was a lot of talk when Scandal first aired, that it was the first show in 38 years to have a black woman as the lead of a network drama. And with that came a lot of pressure. I mean there was nothing I could do to guarantee eyeballs. Unfortunately, my business is not meritocracy.

But I knew that I had to reach toward excellence in every area because even though I knew I couldn't control the result, if Scandal was a failure, it might be another 40 years before a black woman was allowed to be the lead of a network drama. Instead, in the success of Scandal, we had Empire and How To Get Away [With Murder] and Quantico and Station 19. We had all of these shows with black women at the helm because what was considered a "risk" before we aired, suddenly became commonplace.

On how she relates to her character who, like Washington, is mother to a black son

Parenting is an act of vulnerability. Once that little person is here in the world, every day is a practice in letting go. And you do everything you can to protect them and to try to create a safe world for them. But we're not in control as parents.

On how she approached the character of Kendra

I was approaching her in parallel paths, from a kind of intimate psychological perspective where I was mining my own fear and anxiety as black woman and as a mom. But at the same time that I was working very personally, I was also working in this much more historical, sociological, anthropological track because there has always been in this country a history of state violence against black children.

If you begin with slavery, to Emmett Till to Philando Castile, it is a history of the vulnerability of being the parent of a black person. I think it's one of the things that's really powerful about the piece.

On the film's powerful perspective

If you walk with us for these 90 minutes, if you let yourself be in this nightmare, you cannot say that communities that are disenfranchised and that are in hostile relationship with police that we are overreacting. You must understand what the experience is when you allow yourself to spend this evening with us.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"American Son" opens in a Miami police station in the middle of the night or a worried mother frets about her missing son and is frustrated at the lack of information she gets from a police officer who tells her he understands. He's got kids, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN SON")

JEREMY JORDAN: (As Paul Larkin) I am doing the best that I can to help figure out where your...

KERRY WASHINGTON: (As Kendra Ellis-Connor) Do you have a black son?

JORDAN: (As Paul Larkin) Wow. We are really going to go there.

WASHINGTON: (As Kendra Ellis-Connor) Oh, we've been there for a while.

JORDAN: (As Paul Larkin) No, ma'am.

WASHINGTON: (As Kendra Ellis-Connor) Then let's skip the empathy tactic, OK? Because, believe me, you got no idea.

SIMON: That's Jeremy Jordan and Kerry Washington. "American Son," now on Netflix, is adapted from the Broadway play by Christopher Demos-Brown. Kerry Washington, the star of "Scandal" is the film star and executive producer. And she joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

WASHINGTON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You played this role on stage in Broadway. Why did you want to play it again?

WASHINGTON: I guess from the moment I first read the play "American Son" I really was drawn to it because I think the material is so moving and provocative. I felt that it was important to do the work and to expose it to audiences. But I also was aware of the barrier to entry that is inevitable in theater, you know, whether it's the price point of tickets on the Broadway stage, which, of course, we tried to adjust for. We had student tickets and discount prices, but it's still a lot of money. And also just the barrier of geography, you know, not everybody can get to New York to see a play. So the opportunity to tell the story on screen and basically democratize theater in this way was really exciting for me.

SIMON: Let's try and set the scene a little more yet. It's a dark and stormy night.

WASHINGTON: (Laughter) It is.

SIMON: And Kendra, the the mother of Jamal, knows that, knows only that she can't reach her son and his car was involved in some kind of incident. What irritates her about some of the questions the police officer, who, by the way, I note, is always eating a doughnut?

WASHINGTON: (Laughter) Often. Not always. But often.

SIMON: All right, frequently. I wonder if...

WASHINGTON: Sometimes, he's drinking coffee instead (laughter).

SIMON: I wondered if Jeremy Jordan put on a lot of weight during the Broadway run, but...

WASHINGTON: No, he was very tactical on the economy of his bites.

SIMON: But what irritates the mother Kendra about some of the questions that he asks?

WASHINGTON: I think Kendra is really disturbed because she is aware of Officer Larkin's unconscious bias. He's asking her questions about her missing son that imply that her son is a thug, a street kid. He asks if he has tattoos, if he has gold teeth, if he goes by a street name. And I think it really bugs Kendra that he's already decided the kind of kid that her son is just based on the fact that he has a black mom who's looking for him.

SIMON: Yeah, and Jamal, the son, says that he feels like the face of the race. Have you ever felt that way?

WASHINGTON: You know, I was obviously drawn to the narrative because of Kendra and who she is. I myself am a black woman. I have black children, but I realize that a big part of what drew me to the material was also my deep understanding of Jamal, that I am a kid from a working middle class family who went to a very prestigious private school and had to navigate some of those treacherous, cultural investigations or discovery process of who am I and how do I fit in and all the different worlds that I belong to. And I think feeling like the face of the race is not an unknown feeling for me.

You know, there was a lot of talk when "Scandal" first aired that it was the first show in 38 years to have a black woman as the lead of a network drama. And with that came a lot of pressure. I mean, there was nothing I could do to guarantee eyeballs. Unfortunately, my business is not often meritocracy. But I knew that I had to reach toward excellence in every area because even though I couldn't control the result if "Scandal" was a failure, it might be another 40 years before a black woman was allowed to be the lead of a network drama. Instead, in the success of "Scandal," we had "Empire" and "How to Get Away" and "Quantico" and "Station 19." We had all of these shows with the black women at the helm because what was considered a, quote, unquote, "risk" before we aired suddenly became commonplace. So I do - I do understand from various perspectives and at different times in my life a little bit about what Jamal is going through.

SIMON: And there's a heartbreaking - well, I will simply stipulate there are about 50 heartbreaking moments...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...But one in particular where Kendra says that she would sometimes put their son to sleep and just walk into his bedroom because she'd wake up in the middle of the night worried about him. She'd have nightmares about what might await him in life.

WASHINGTON: What's your question?

SIMON: Well, does that happen to you?

WASHINGTON: You know, parenting is always an act of vulnerability. The moment that you have that little person outside of your body - if that's your path into parenting and there are a lot of ways to get there. But once that little person is here in the world, every day is a practice in letting go. And you do everything you can to protect them and to try to create a safe world for them. But we're not in control as parents.

It's funny. When I was approaching the character, I feel like I was approaching her in parallel paths. One from a kind of intimate psychological perspective where I was minding my own fear and anxiety as a black woman and as a mom. But at the same time that I was working very personally, I was also working in this kind of much more historical, sociological, anthropological tract because there has always been in this country a history of state violence against black children. If you begin with slavery to Emmett Till to Philando Castile, it is a history of the vulnerability of being the parent of a black person.

And I think it's one of the things that's really powerful about the peace is that if you walk with us for these 90 minutes, if you let yourself be in this nightmare, you cannot say that communities that are disenfranchised and that are in hostile relationship with police that we are overreacting. You must understand what the experience is when you allow yourself to spend this evening with us.

SIMON: Kerry Washington, star and executive producer of "American Son" streaming on Netflix, thank you very much for being with us.

WASHINGTON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.