Growing up near Chicago in the 1990s, artist and director, Rashid Johnson felt that he had a bond with author, Richard Wright. Having expressed his desire to turn his book, “Native Son” into a feature film.
“Native Son” is the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man filled with promise who accidentally kills the white daughter of a wealthy man and, while on the run from the Police, also murders his Black girlfriend. In Wright’s novel, the story takes place in the heated, segregated Chicago of 1930.
The story lived with Johnson for a long while but it wasn’t until he was eventually introduced to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks, who agreed to work on a screenplay for the film. Familiar with the novel herself, Parks, like many of us, first read the book in high school and remembers feeling disturbed and afraid, but what stayed with her, was that Bigger Thomas didn’t remind her of anyone she knew.Director Rashid Johnson, who’s known best as a visual artist, leans into the script and re-locates Wright’s 1940 novel to 2019 making the story sing and sting with layers upon layers of meaning for an audience to unpack.
The character Bigger Thomas is played by Ashton Sanders, best known for “Moonlight,” and a key reason this version works so very well. Bigger Thomas becomes a person, not an archetype.
The brilliant adaptation comes from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter, Suzan-Lori Parks, whose work is often challenging to explain. Meaning, Ms. Parks has range winning the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog” and the list of her accomplishments is lengthy.
There are many things that make Park’s work remarkable especially in “Native Son” and if I had to choose, just one, I’d say that it’s her dialogue. Her newest play White Noise, for example, (now playing at The Public Theater, in New York) is three hours long and holds only four characters.
In the re-invented “Native Son” Bigger’s a fast-moving bike messenger still living under the protective roof of his siblings and his mother (Sanaa Lathan). Much like avoiding the potholes that litter the streets, so comes the more nuanced temptations of life and all colored, it seems by deep-seated prejudice that seems to be hiding and growing in every single crack.
There are many visual hints on how Bigger’s story will end. One example which happens very early in the film is a tight shot of Bigger’s pistol laying atop a copy of the Ralph Ellison book “Invisible Man.”
What’s so tricky, so downright sinister is that for Bigger, his hell comes fully clothed, smelling of opportunity. Just like the novel, Bigger goes to work as a driver for a very wealthy man (Bill Camp) and his blind wife (Elizabeth Marvel). Their bold and blissfully clueless daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley) thinks nothing of flirting both with her body and her ideas. A new twist that’s not in Wright’s novel and an important change is that Bigger and his girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne, “If Beale Street Could Talk”), become socially friendly with Mary and her boyfriend, Jan (Nick Robinson) joining the couple at key events. It’s here, in the safety of familiarity that the accidental murder occurs throwing Bigger into the deepest part of hell.
Here’s the thing, once Bigger commits the murder, a fatal mistake, he is doomed. There is no way out. He’s a Black man and the forces that surround him on a regular day are tripled. This is not giving him an excuse but it’s important to note, that as a Black man, in America, he’s marked from birth.
If you are Black in America then you know that every word that I wrote is true. If you are Black or Brown in America, you feel the noose and will understand the creative choices that Johnson has made from Park’s masterful screenplay adaptation of Right Wright’s novel “Native Son.”
“Native Son” now playing on HBO Go and HBO.