When a film adaptation of Native Son was announced last year, many of us had the same exact thought: What would a current, Native Son film look like? How could Richard Wright’s contentious, 1940 novel land on-screen in this current social and political climate? The result is a film that still remains problematic, but reckons with its source material in an assured, modern way, as best as it can—much due to the directing, writing and magnificent tour-de-force from its lead.
Directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson in his feature debut and written by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, the film is headlined by Moonlight standout Ashton Sanders, who is bolstered by an ensemble including Sanaa Lathan, KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk), Nick Robinson (Love, Simon), Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers), Jerod Haynes (The Village) and Lamar Johnson (The Hate U Give).
Instead of the novel's 1940s setting, we’re in present-day Chicago. Bigger Thomas lives with his widowed mom (Sanaa Lathan) and two younger siblings. As the story itself gets a modern update, so does Bigger -- reimagined as a punk music and Beethoven-loving hipster with green hair. And as expected, he’s quite the eccentric cat. While he is clearly an intellectual who is well-informed (a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man sits on his bed), he’s not interested in politics and is all-too content with his job as a messenger boy. He seems keen on staying out of trouble, which means he has to resist some of his friends’ antics, whether that be avoiding a robbery plot or not selling drugs. He’s in love with his girlfriend, Bessie (Layne), a hair stylist studying business in college.
Bigger’s life could change for the better when he’s offered the opportunity to become a driver for a rich Chicago family. The Dalton Family is a textbook example of the white liberal. The patriarch, Henry (Bill Camp), is a millionaire developer, who—while he may not know much about injustice—seems to be sympathetic to the cause. In comparison, his high-strung daughter, Mary (Qualley) is a wannabe staunch activist who represents white feminism, even questioning Bigger on his anger towards society’s woes. Mary’s political activist boyfriend, Jan (Robinson), doesn’t come across as oblivious as she does, due to his working-class background, but he still has a ways to go with understanding racism, as well.
As time pushes on, Bigger begins to balance his new life and both worlds, all culminating in a night of events that begins with the quad of Bigger, Bessie, Jan and Mary out at a party, high on molly. After a blowup between Jan and the increasingly problematic and intoxicated-out-of-her-mind Mary, Bigger takes her back home and finds himself in a horrific situation, spawned by his attempts to stop something bad from happening.
Here, a little bit over halfway through the film, it sees a dramatic shift in tone. Once a witty indictment on class, race and politics in 2019, becomes a thrilling horror that could come crashing down at any given moment. Sanders remains stellar through the tonal shifts, rising to the occasion as each new layer of this this iteration of Bigger is revealed. The race/class dialogue that brims through the film seems to conflict with the central, tragic narrative of the story, but by the time we arrive at the end of the film, it is a full circle moment when we realize that regardless of the situation at hand, Bigger would have always been punished for being a Black man in America.
The film serves as an outstanding showcase for Ashton Sanders, who has a stunning turn as Bigger that deserves recognition. And coming alive in a way that we didn’t get to see her in If Beale Street Could Talk, Layne is electric as Bessie. If you needed any further evidence than their previous efforts, both Sanders and Layne prove that they are the real deal and are here to stay for a long time.
Sanaa Lathan embodies the caring and heartbroken mother, though her screen time is short. As for the other players, Qualley portrays white privilege with exactness and Robinson is very affecting as Jan, though there was a lot of potential left to be explored when it comes to his dynamic with Bigger. Haynes and Johnson are great supporting members of the cast as Bigger's friends.
Although the most pivotal, bleak moment of the film remains unchanged from Wright’s novel, Parks and Johnson did change at least two key elements of the original story to make it work better for 2019. At least one of those changes was absolutely needed and necessary and the other, while not necessary per se, ends the film on a note that relates to today’s current headlines involving the police and Black people.
While many will more than likely argue that the story is too controversial and dark to tell in 2019, there is no way that a Native Son adaptation could heavily deviate from the source material. So, while the film’s shift in tone is jarring to say the least, it is on par with the collision course that was destined from the opening shot of Bigger and his pistol.
Despite its flaws, Native Son successfully updates the story to 2019, begging the question: Is 2019 America so different than 1940?
As the film has been picked up by HBO (A24’s role is just as producer, not distributor), it is a shame that Johnson’s solid first feature and the magnificent performances will not be on the big screen, but in a way, due to all of the potential implications and the wider audience impact, maybe this is the best.
Native Son will debut in 2019 on HBO. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2019.