Sundance 2019: ‘Native Son’ Is a Chilling Update on Richard Wright’s Novel

by Brian Marks
Published: Last Updated on

In Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, he ponders the ways in which society strips away the possible futures of black and brown people, leaving them with few options, most of which are disappointing at best. Although it’s meant to have the form of a realist drama, much of Native Son plays more like a horror film, not only because of Bigger Thomas’ atrocious crimes, but also because of the way fate seems to chase him like a constantly accelerating reaper. The book’s newest film adaptation, directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson and written by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, retains the novel’s sense of horror, though it transposes its mid-20th Century fears to the present day.

In Johnson and Parks’ update, Bigger Thomas (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders) is now a leather-clad punk fan with dyed green hair. He eschews the rap music most of his friends listen to, and dresses as if he were an attendee at an early Sex Pistols show. When a friend suggests robbing a convenience store as a get-rich-quick scheme, he demurs, instead taking a job his mother’s boyfriend has found him as a driver for a wealthy white man. The seemingly progressive Henry Dalton (the always reliable Bill Camp) provides him with his own room in a mansion, as well as the ability to use the car whenever he’s off duty. Bigger often ends up driving not merely Henry, but also his wayward daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), often accompanied by her boyfriend, Jan (Love, Simon’s Nick Robinson), who spouts social justice talking points that go beyond Henry’s well-meaning liberalism. Things at first seem great for Bigger, who’s living a life of luxury compared to the situation at his family’s rat-infested apartment, but the more time he spends with Mary and Jan, the more obvious it is that they don’t understand anything about his life.

Readers of Native Son will know the basic outlines of Bigger’s disastrous confrontation with Mary that leaves him running from the authorities. Johnson films his crime straight-on in a horrifyingly direct way that will make many viewers squirm. Though the film is faithful in its depiction of this scene of violence, it departs substantially from Wright’s novel in its final scenes. Parks’ choices are clearly inspired by copious news reports of the treatment of black men by law enforcement, though the scenes are measured and moving, rather than sensationalist.

Sanders’ performance as Bigger expertly vacillates between chillingly cold and heartbreaking; in Wright’s novel, Bigger was already doomed in one way or another, but we get a sense in the film that perhaps things didn’t need to end the way they do. KiKi Layne, who plays his girlfriend, doesn’t get the kind of meaty role she had in Barry Jenkins’ astonishing If Beale Street Could Talk, but she’s always captivating when on screen, and her character’s fate differs from the book in important ways. Johnson and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, beautifully photograph both actors, and on multiple occasions Sanders is filmed using a time-lapse shot as the camera slowly zooms in. He stands still, barely moving as passerby zoom past him, an illustration of the way the world left Bigger behind.

It’s clear at times that this is Johnson’s first feature. Some of the acting from the white characters is occasionally stilted, and Parks’ screenplay features some overly literate lines that would play just fine on stage, but not on the screen. Wright’s novel has been controversial and problematic since it was first published, so perhaps it’s fitting that a film adaptation would have issues of its own. Still, Johnson and Parks have come closest to creating the adaptation Native Son deserves.

Sundance Film Festival 2019

The Sundance Film Festival runs January 24 – February 3. Visit the official website for more information.

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