At a pivotal moment in Netflix’s “American Son,” Kerry Washington’s character reveals that her biracial son Jamal feels like “the face of the race,” existing only to explain to his mostly white private school classmates what it feels like to be black in America.
“There are various moments in my career and in my life where I’ve felt like ‘the face of the race,’” Washington told Variety after a recent screening of the film in Los Angeles. “The whole beginning of ‘Scandal,’ every headline was ‘This hasn’t happened in 40 years.’ And so there was a deep understanding that if ‘Scandal’ didn’t work, it might be another 40 years before we had a [network drama] with a black woman as the lead.”
She recalled, “So I felt that responsibility — a helpless responsibility, because there was nothing I could do to make people turn on their televisions. I could make sure that we were doing the work and work that I was proud of, but the numbers of eyeballs that watched it, I didn’t have any control over that.”
Washington ultimately earned two Emmy-nominations over the series’ seven season run. “But in the success of ‘Scandal,’ you then have Viola [Davis] and you have Taraji [P. Henson],” she said. “And now we have an understanding that one person cannot hold the responsibility of being ‘the face of the race’ because we are not a monolith. We are diverse and inclusive within our own. And so you have less pressure on each of us to be the face of anything, because together we are beginning to reflect and be the embodiment of the multitudes of beauty that black womanhood is.”
In her first role since retiring “Scandal’s” Olivia Pope, Washington plays Kendra Ellis-Conner, a mother searching for answers surrounding the disappearance of her teenage son, who was involved in an incident with police, though no one will tell her what exactly occurred.
“I understood her so clearly,” she said of playing the role of Kendra. “I’ve been that black woman who’s having big feelings in an appropriate moment and being stereotyped to be something other. And I wanted to bring her to our canon. I wanted to embody her [because] — even though I know her and I’ve been her — I hadn’t seen her.”
Playing the role on both stage and screen, Washington’s level of insight proved to be invaluable to the crew.
“One day she said to me, ‘Do you realize this is a story about a mother and three men with guns?’” director Kenny Leon told Variety. “She’s scared too, you know? And then every time she tried to express herself or to speak more powerfully to these men, she would get shut down. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s what it’s like being a woman, a powerful woman going through the world every day.’”
Racial identity and gender politics are just some of the hot button topics “American Son” dives into during its gut-wrenching 90-minute run. The story, which also tackles issues of personal bias and police brutality, has already been conversation starter among audiences who absorbed it on Broadway. Washington’s ultimate goal by partnering with a platform like Netflix is to broaden that conversation that began onstage.
“Not everybody has $200 to go and see a play on Broadway,” she explained. “The economic diversity of our audience was really important to me, but also the global diversity of our audience, because violence with the police and bias with the police is not just an issue in the United States. I can see on my social media [that] this is an issue in Paris and in London and in Brussels and in Johannesburg and in São Paulo.”