'Native Son': Film Review | Sundance 2019

A problematic but keenly talented take on an imperishable text.

Director Rashid Johnson and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks deliver a modernized adaptation of the Richard Wright novel, starring Ashton Sanders ('Moonlight').

Significant beauties as well as wrenching difficulties attach to the new film adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 landmark novel Native Son. The mostly new-to-cinema creative team, led by visual artist-turned-director Rashid Johnson and much-honored playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog), has infused this absorbing film with many fresh and arresting scenes, while the mostly young actors similarly keep things humming on a moment-to-moment basis.

But there remain unresolved dramatic issues rooted in the film’s narrative allegiance to some critical plot developments that create a nagging sense of dislocation and lack of credibility just as the film itself hovers exquisitely if sometimes awkwardly between pristine art work and deterministically tragic melodrama.

Read today, Wright’s brilliant book has lost none of its power and dark truth, but adaptations of it into other media have mostly proven problematic. A New York stage adaptation by Orson Welles and John Houseman in 1941 was widely acclaimed. Still, the work’s trenchant take on race relations was far too radical and realistic for Hollywood to even consider it (even if, in the right hands, it could have made for a great film noir in the late 1940s).

Instead, a screen version was made in 1950 starring Wright himself (who, at over 40, was twice too old to play protagonist Bigger Thomas) on a soundstage in Argentina, of all places, and was directed by a Belgian, Pierre Chenal. It possessed all the elements of a fiasco, and it was. Little remarked is a 1986 telefilm in which Oprah Winfrey played Bigger's mother.

The novel, a best-seller in its day, was as clear-eyed and undeniable a dissection of and attack on America’s racial divide as could be imagined at the time. Set in Chicago, it vividly displayed the city’s two major cultures as entirely different worlds, each with its own rules and assumptions, and it plainly laid out how blacks could and could not behave and speak around whites, where they could and couldn’t go, what jobs they could and couldn’t get, and all the attitudes that both fed such behavior and perpetuated the status quo.

This was all seen through the perspective of Bigger Thomas, a fatherless kid living with his mother and two siblings, a seething youth whose brutal tendencies and flirtation with crime are at least momentarily diverted by getting a job as a driver for a wealthy family of liberal, charitable inclination.

From the outset, it’s clear that this modern film version will have a very different flavor than the book. For starters, this 2019 Bigger (the magnetic Ashton Sanders, who played the teenage Chiron in Moonlight) is nowhere near being a thug. Rather, he’s a skinny kid keenly aware of style, with dyed green hair, glasses and a black leather jacket on which the phrase “Or Am I Freaking Out” is scrawled several times. His girlfriend Bess (If Beale Street Could Talk's Kiki Layne) is a hairdresser. Criminality and structural racism are ever-evident, but social boundaries and attitudes are far more fluid and varied than in the world depicted by Wright.

Emphatically setting a different tone than expected, and beautifully so, is a jazzy, electrified score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein that sets an internal, brooding, borderline mournful tone rather than anything confrontational. This alone puts the film on a different plane, just as it helps define Bigger’s inner journey and the path toward tragedy.

Bigger is hired as the full-time driver for the Daltons, a wealthy family with a mansion where Bigger will live in a back room. The patriarch (Bill Camp) is a liberal, welcoming sort whose wife (Elizabeth Marvel) is blind, while their daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley) is something of a wild thing and comparative political radical like her boyfriend, Jan (Nick Robinson). Mostly, though, she wants to be provocative and have fun, which she tries to do by luring Bigger into her throbbing social circle. In the novel, the rich young whites were under the spell of communism.

The film’s first half is very much a mood piece, wonderfully inflected at many moments by surprising choices made by fresh filmmakers excited by the opportunity to wrestle with a venerable text and unafraid to trust their instincts to take it in contemporary directions.

But when Bigger unintentionally kills Mary and undertakes a gruesomely elaborate cover-up, the film takes a melodramatic turn that felt acceptable in the novel but never properly squares either with the personality of this modern Bigger nor with a telling of the story stripped of the politically deterministic agenda (Wright was a member of the Communist Party when he wrote the book, but later broke with it). Another significant plot detail involving a coal furnace seems very antiquated.

The film’s second half, then, suffers under the weight of awkward, if inherited, plot mechanics that the filmmakers were not able to maneuver around as successfully as they do in the first half. The movie jettisons the book’s climactic trial sequence, and one wishes some way might have been found around the other major barriers to contemporary verisimilitude.

That said, there is much beauty here. Johnson and cinematographer Matthew Libatique key into a luminous visual style that is often voluptuous but not overripe. The same can be said of Akin McKenzie’s production design and Elizabeth Birkett’s costumes.

But what probably sets this Native Son apart from others and from anyone’s expectations is Sanders. Exceptionally thin and angular, he’s different than those around him, an iconoclast by nature; he loses a measure of his appeal and interest when forced to behave normally.

Camp also plays the wealthy patriarch against type, coming off as aware and sympathetic. Qualley nails his frisky, teasing daughter, Layne is a live wire as Bigger’s flame, and Sanaa Lathan has some good moments as Bigger’s mother.

The challenge of transferring this eight-decade-old story to the screen may, in fact, be fraught with certain insurmountable obstacles, but this effort has so much talent evident in so many creative areas that it’s quite worth a look.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition) 
Production companies: A24, Bow and Arrow
Cast: Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, Kiki Layne, Bill Camp, Sanaa Lathan, Elizabeth Marvel, David Alan Grier 
Director: Rashid Johnson
Screenwriter: Suzan-Lori Parks, based on the novel by Richard Wright
Producers: Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman
Executive producer: Stephanie Meurer
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Akin McKenzie
Costume designer: Elizabeth Birkett
Editor: Brad Turner
Music: Kyle Dixon, Michael Stein
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Raylin Sabo

110 minutes