For better or worse, Richard Wright’s Native Son has ingrained itself within America’s racial consciousness since its publication in 1940. The novel pops up frequently in high school and college classrooms, it has been brought to the stage on multiple occasions (its 1941 run at the St. James was directed by Orson Welles), and it has been turned into a film twice prior to this latest adaptation by conceptual artist and first-time director Rashid Johnson.
The text—a dire portrait of the black experience in 1930’s America—has raised controversy for its fatalism: James Baldwin famously attacked the novel for implicitly reasserting the same stereotypes it attempts to identify and dismantle. Nevertheless, the story of Bigger Thomas’ tragic demise holds some mythic import, and Johnson’s reimagining of Wright’s novel—now set in contemporary Chicago—has the text’s ubiquity on its mind.
Wright’s novel is broken into three parts—“Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate”—whose headings Johnson rearranges here so that the film opens with a section on “Fate,” followed by “Fear,” and then “Flight.” Waking up on a glum morning, Big (Ashton Sanders) moseys out of bed to gaze out the window of his small bedroom. He stands out sporting short green hair, a jacket punked-out with a splatter of anarchic idioms, and a collection of rings around fingers with nails painted black. He’s a young adult still living with his family (two younger siblings, his mom, and occasionally, her boyfriend) in a cramped apartment, and this opening section follows a day in his life. He works a middling job as a personal assistant, spends time with his girlfriend Bessie (Kiki Layne), and staves off temptations from his friends to enter a life of crime. He resists—unlike the Bigger of Wright’s novel, this Big doesn’t have a criminal record and he wants to keep it that way.
Big may be a self-proclaimed outsider, but he also needs some cash. “Fear” begins with our protagonist accepting an opportunity to interview to be a driver for the family of a local aristocrat, Mr. Dalton (Bill Camp). The Dalton mansion, equal parts setting and symbol, is monstrously big, extending even beyond the width of the frame, as Big approaches and enters. Inside, the old-world Tudor style comes to a head with a slew of postmodern and postcolonial art: abstract expressionist paintings, Buddhist frescoes, and African statuettes. After a brief interview, Dalton offers him the job, and for his work, Big will get $1,000 a week and a room to himself in the house. Dalton shows him around and introduces him to his blind wife (Elizabeth Marvel)—a plot-point taken from the novel that still feels a bit too on-the-nose here—and their college-aged, Marxist daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley). He comes to spend a great deal of time with Mary and her activist boyfriend, Jan (Nick Robinson).
Having entered a new world, Big begins grappling with the difficulties and confusion arising from his sudden and immediate collision with enormous privilege, and this conflict becomes the crux of this fable. Expectations and stereotypes held by everyone around Bigger begin to weigh heavily on him until he breaks. Mr. Dalton mutters something about how he may be a capitalist, but he supports and gives money to the NAACP. Mary and Jan’s immediate infatuation with Big comes off as plainly fetishizing—at one point, they urge him to take them to a restaurant in his neighborhood, where they can get some “real food.” Meanwhile, even his friends berate him point blank for his decision to work for and live with this rich family.
Even in rejiggering certain aspects of Wright’s narrative, Johnson ultimately upholds the essential, thematic truth at the center of the fable: Bigger Thomas’ inability to break the mold cast upon him at birth because of his race. Johnson doesn’t shy away from Wright’s determinism, even as Big spends much of the story affirming his prized individuality. We enter his headspace with an ongoing, if erratic and occasionally rambling, voice-over narrative monologue delivered in Sanders’ gruff, deep delivery, and Johnson emphasizes his solitary outsiderness by utilizing time-lapse photography at some key points during the film.
If Native Son fails, it is perhaps because Big is less of a character than he is a symbol. Unlike his friends, he loves hardcore punk and classical music. He’s apolitical. He has green hair. The problem is that Suzan-Lori Parks’ screenplay gives all sorts of character traits that outwardly define him against everyone around him, while failing to give him any sort of interior life. We assume that he wrote those words on his jacket, but nothing in his actions speaks to his anarchic spirit. The real tragedy of this adaptation of Native Son is simply that Big never becomes anything more than a tragic figure set up to fail.
Featured Image by HBO