About halfway through Native Son, visual artist Rashid Johnson’s directorial debut premiering April 6 on HBO, the film takes a drastic turn. The first half is a vibey, mood-filled story about a young Black man grappling with his identity when faced with a world of monied, white privilege. The second, a noir-ish crime tale involving a coal furnace.
One of these is vastly more engrossing than the other, which makes the overall experience feel a little disjointed. Like protagonist Bigger Thomas, you’re ensnared by a seductive story that’s a front for a far bleaker reality. On some level, it’s a flaw that can be traced back to the source material. Richard Wright’s groundbreaking best-seller, published in 1940, is notoriously difficult to adapt, a problem faced by so many novels that hinge almost exclusively on the audience’s understanding and empathy for a character’s inner monologue. (Johnson handles that part mostly via voiceover, which isn’t bad in and of itself, but nearly always feels overwritten in film.) But it’s also a fitting problem for a film that’s about the halting power of systemic injustice. One minute you’re dealing with a mild identity crisis, the next you’re fighting for your very life.
Despite that unevenness, there’s no denying that Johnson’s film, with a script by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks, is an ambitious and arrestingly compelling work that packs a mighty punch. By setting the nearly 79-year-old story in modern day Chicago with only a few tweaks, Parks and Johnson are making a powerful statement about race in this country without having to be hamfisted about it. And the scenes that work, really work, brimming with memorable, visceral visuals and gut-wrenching subtext that hits home even when the film doesn’t quite hold up.
James Baldwin famously criticized the novel for painting Bigger with too-broad strokes, using him as a blanket allegory rather than a living, breathing protagonist. Not this Bigger. Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders crackles in the role as a young Black man living with his single mom (Sanaa Lathan), sister, and younger brother on the South Side of Chicago, who gets a job as a chauffeur for one of the city’s biggest real estate moguls, Will Dalton (Bill Camp). It’s a lucky break — in one fell swoop, he gets steady pay, room, and board in Dalton’s palatial mansion, and the freedom to explore his options beyond just making ends meet. (Part of his responsibilities include emptying the old house’s coal furnace, a weird detail held over from the novel, which in this context turns out to be a Chekovian alarm bell.)
The Daltons — rounded off by Elizabeth Marvel as Will’s wife, who is blind, and Margaret Qualley as Mary, their college-age daughter — are limousine liberals, spouting off left-wing beliefs in the same breath as an inadvertent condescending racial putdown.
Mary, especially, is the kind of affluent white girl who wants to prove she’s independent from her rich family by being in touch with “real people,” even if she has no idea what that means. At some point, she asks Bigger where his family vacationed that summer, only to be gently reminded by her boyfriend, Jan (Love Simon's Nick Robinson), that yachting trips are not part of most people’s life experience. “I didn’t want to assume,” she replies brusquely, her reddening cheeks belying her words.
Getting by in this job means making himself small. But with his acid-green hair, punk-ish leather jacket covered with hand-scrawled white slogans and safety pins, and penchant for poetic musings, Big doesn’t fit in a neat little box. Where the Daltons see a guy from the projects trying to better himself, Big’s own community sees an oddball. His friends, focused on a promotion to manager of a run-down movie theater, or moving up the drug chain, scoff affectionately at his philosophical musings, while girlfriend Bessie (If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne, who gives an electric performance that feels more impactful than her limited screen presence might suggest) boasts that there’s no one quite like him.
And yet, the tragedy of Native Son is all the things that make Big special ultimately don’t matter. The deck has been stacked against him from birth, leaving him with a whole bunch of paths that lead to the same, sad end.
Mary’s fascination with Big predictably takes a dark turn. In one split-second mistake — brought on, ironically, by the fear that he will be perceived as a criminal — the things that made him who he is no longer matter. He has fulfilled his destiny. As in the book, Native Son doesn’t gloss over Big’s crime. Rather, it places it in the context of a system that’s hell-bent on seeing him become a criminal. A news report playing in the background as Big shaves his signature hair to conceal his identity summarizes it best: “Why do they say he’s guilty? Because in their minds he was guilty before he was born. He’s got Black guilt.”
In the very beginning of Native Son, Big places a gun on top of his copy of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. It’s a clear wink at how this film fits into the long history of Black socio-political thinking, and storytelling. But it’s also a smooth bit of foreshadowing. Big the person is invisible to those who think they already know him, whether it’s the Daltons, or the policeman that confronts him in the film’s final moments. He’s no longer a smart young man who loves metal rock, kills rats for his mom, and drinks milk out of the carton. He’s just a Black man with a gun. The end.