It’s probably one of the most difficult emotions to teach. It’s the emotion that President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama want most for their daughters to be able to readily tap into—the ability to put oneself in another’s person shoes and experience the world from his or her point of view; to feel the highs, the lows and the nuances of a situation from a completely different vantage point—and then to be able to incorporate that point of view into your own decision-making.
It’s an idea that ran through my head again and again and again as the nation was reeling from the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and then Jordan Davis and then Renisha McBride and, most recently, Michael Brown.
“A life is a life is a life,” I said to myself over and over again.
The short film AmeriCAN, which was released to the public on Wednesday, captures that sentiment so compellingly. Written and directed by actor Nate Parker (Beyond the Lights, The Great Debaters), the 14-minute film begins at the dinner table and ends with a single gunshot that Parker is hoping will shake viewers—particularly white Americans—out of this trance that suggests that black skin is less than, inferior.
“We’ve been conditioned to dehumanize black skin,” Parker said during an interview with The Root.
At the dinner table sits a white family: the father (a police officer), a mother and their two sons—a teenager and his younger brother. The teenager has an African-American friend, J.B., whom he wants to hang out with, but his father doesn’t want him leaving the house to meet up with J.B.—and especially not at night.
“I want to keep you from bad situations,” the father explains to his son—an eerie foretelling, but more important, indicative of the violence that this white man associates with all black boys, even J.B., a black boy he knows personally and considers to be “a good kid.” The irony.
Spoiler alert: Events unfold that night that allow this white police officer and, hopefully, white viewers to experience the grief that has become all too familiar for far too many black parents.
When Parker was in Ferguson, Mo., during the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, he said that what he found even more disturbing were the white protesters who were holding signs and chanting messages expressing their support of the police and the officer who fatally shot Brown, Darren Wilson.
That some white people couldn’t understand why black America was up in arms about the excessive police force that is used against black men, and felt that it was appropriate to communicate their support for Wilson so soon after the incident, seemed “worse than what actually happened,” Parker explained.
There was a lack of empathy. And AmeriCAN does a fascinating job of giving white Americans the burden to bear as well. But “the film is not an indictment,” Parker said again and again. He wants people, especially cops, to “take a beat.”
“Just take a beat,” he said, and be more conscious about the way dark-brown complexions are not valued in America, and the brutal way we perceive the intentions of black men. If more people—both law enforcement and civilians—took a beat and imagined young black men as their own kids, it would go a long way.
AmeriCAN left me stunned, saddened and yet oddly vindicated that activists like Parker (he maintains that he’s an activist first and an actor second) are using every tool at their disposal to change the messaging so that those white Americans who are sick of black people complaining about racism and police brutality get it.
This Halloween weekend, AmeriCAN allows white Americans to dress up as blacks, just for a moment. It’s a soul-baring journey that everyone ought to have.
Watch the film below:
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and film’s most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.