“Native Son”: Film Review | Sundance 2019

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Promotional Photo from Native Son; Photo courtesy of Variety

A modern take on a landmark classic in Black literature, new-to-cinema team of Rashid Johnson and Suzan-Lori Parks’ adaptation of the Richard Wright novel is held by Ashton Sanders poetic performance and works – until the novel actually kicks in.

Screen adaptations of acclaimed books are hard – how do you keep the parts of the book that made it so successful into a cinematic adaptation without straying too far from the source material or sticking too closely to the text? With an acclaimed novel such as “Native Son” by acclaimed African-American autheur Richard Wright, there was plenty of opportunity to get it wrong but luckily for the new-to-cinema creative team (led by visual artist turned director Rashid Johnson and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks) their new adaptation of the Wright’s 1940 landmark novel falls somewhere in between the lines of successful and horrible adaptation that is kept afloat by a poetic performance from Ashton Sanders.

The film is set in the present day and the hero of the novel, Bigger Thomas (played by a phenomenal Sanders) is a young man in need of guidance. He works a low-paying job, has a very loving family, hangs out with his friends in Chicago and meets up with his girlfriend, a hairstylist named Bessie (Kiki Layne). He rocks a Afropunk demeanor in terms of character and style and Sanders brings a painfully soft-spoken and meek character to life throughout the early half. Not until a new job opportunity comes his way is he thrust into an uncomfortable sphere of privilege… specifically white privilege. His employer is real estate tycoon Mr. Dalton (Bill Camp) who wants to help him with his situation while also displacing families like his; the paradox is not lost on Bigger but he takes the job cause he desperately needs money. Most of the job entails watching Mr. Dalton’s spoiled daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley) whom Bigger begins to have a liking for… until one drug-fueld night where everything goes horribly wrong.

The film’s first half is very much played out like a mood piece. Choices made by the new filmmaker team allows them to take every opportunity and wrestle with the venerable text. You can clearly see they are unafraid of taking the contemporary directions that they have chosen and most of the choices are aided or enhanced by the rest of the team. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique keys into a very luminous visual style casting a gloomy shadow in every frame as if to foreshadow what is to come. If the camera work isn’t ominous enough, the movie’s fatalist tone is driven home by a foreboding score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein; their work significantly enhances the eeriness and sets an internal, mournful tone rather than a confrontational one.

The second half of the film suffers under the weight of the awkward plot mechanics that the filmmakers seem to not have been able to maneuver around as successfully as they do in the first half. The movie seems to jettison the book’s climactic trial sequence and one wishes they might have found another way to tackle the stereotypical yet real obstacles that Bigger faces in the latter half. Camp plays the wealthy patriarch against type, making him come off as aware and sympathetic. Qualley nails his frisky and teasing daughter while Layne is a live wire as Bigger’s flame. The work by the actors helps elevate the important and controversial story even in a more modern setting.

The greatest challenge of adapting and transferring an almost eight-decade-old story to the screen may be fraught with certain insurmountable obstacles. There is a fatalism to the design of the novel that was very forceful back in the ’40s when it was published (and even up until the ’60s) that could be seen as feeding into too much blanket victimization. With another remake, it’s another generation’s chance to wrestle with many of the ideas that Richard Wright sought to develop and write in his story. The effort of the filmmakers and cast and crew has so much talent evident throughout in so many creative areas that it’s worth a look as an intriguing adaptation of conflicting classic.

JAKKAWI: B-

“Native Son” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Section. At press time, the film was released by HBO Films on April 6, 2019. It is currently available for streaming on HBO GO.

The Official Trailer for Native Son by HBO Films; all rights owned by A24, Bow and Arrow and HBO Films.

Director(s): Rashid Johnson.
Screenwriter(s): Suzan-Lori Parks, based on the novel by Richard Wright.
Music by: Kyle Dixon, Michael Stein.
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique.
Production: A24, Bow and Arrow.
Distributor: HBO Films.
With: Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, Kiki Layne, Bill Camp, Sanaa Lathan, Elizabeth Marvel, David Alan Grier.

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