“Native Son” transforms the classic protagonist from Richard Wright’s 1940 novel into a green-haired punk rocker, but director Rashid Johnson’s harrowing adaptation is more faithful than it looks. The plight of Bigger Thomas (“Moonlight” breakout Ashton Sanders), an impoverished young black man whose life falls apart under violent circumstances, delivers a compelling vessel for the simmering anger and frustration of racial persecution that suits the present moment. The most upsetting aspect of the movie is how little must change to give his plight a contemporary spin.
Visual artist Johnson’s directorial debut is attuned to the challenge of realizing the novel in cinematic terms. The expressionistic visual polish aided by ace cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“A Star Is Born”) roots Bigger in the dense crowds and sprawling abandoned warehouses of modern-day Chicago, while Sanders’ first major role after “Moonlight” is rich with the alternating modes of passion, terror, and resentment at the center of the character’s struggle.
“Native Son” is also less than the sum of its parts, with a screenplay by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks that injects a ponderous and often heavy-handed voiceover into a dark drama that speaks for itself, and some clunky staging that stalls the overall emotional impact over the course of Bigger’s journey. Nevertheless, while very much a first feature, “Native Son” wrestles with the vision of its iconoclastic source material with an incendiary edge in tune with its outlook.
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Utilizing the same structure as the novel, the movie takes its time in establishing Bigger’s meandering lifestyle. He escapes his crowded apartment to frequent bars, smoke weed, and watch movies with his pals Gus (Jerod Haynes) and Tony (Lamar Johnson), squeezing in some meager time with his good-natured girlfriend (“If Beale Street Could Talk” sensation Kiki Layne). Bigger’s a tough-minded rebel who seems to appreciate his aimless existence in the throes of a society that has no use for him. But his mother wants him to get a job, and her partner (David Alan Grier) has the perfect gig, as a live-in driver for wealthy white businessman Mr. Dalton (Bill Camp).
Bigger does his best to settle into the routine, but the Dalton family’s palatial existence is a disorienting universe of false smiles and polished surfaces that — in 21st-century movie terms, at least — echoes the sociological eeriness of “Get Out.” Bigger barely gets the chance to recover from the shock of Mr. Dalton’s blind wife (Elizabeth Marvel) before he lands his worst assignment, driving the couple’s spoiled daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley) and her politically active boyfriend Jan (Nick Robinson). In between shuttling them to bars and crummy parties, he’s forced to contend with Mary’s awkward come-ons and peculiar racial prejudices, setting the stage for the abrupt criminal twist at the halfway point.
Following the same beats as the novel, Bigger’s transition from disgruntled employee to wanted man unfolds as a horrific slow-burn. The noir-like twist of that dilemma falters in the closing act, as Bigger’s options close in and a series of fragmented circumstances fall short of giving the scenario room to breathe. But the movie wrestles with this symbolic literary figure in such vivid terms that its haunting tone remains absorbing throughout.
When Johnson does depart from the novel, the changes suggest a feistier, more individualistic character than the confused introvert of the original. While Wright opened the book with a blaring alarm clock, Johnson establishes Bigger’s self-determination upfront. “I don’t need an alarm clock to wake me up,” he says. Clothed in a funky leather jacket and wearing thick silver rings on both hands, Bigger is a spectacular embodiment of punk rage; he’s also occasionally treated as a blunt, undercooked metaphor who keeps “The Invisible Man” at his bedside and bops his head to “Kill the Poor,” but at least the symbolism is consistent.
Parks’ screenplay — which adds a layer of first-person storytelling absent from the novel — works best when its extrapolates Bigger’s rages in poetic reflections he hesitates to speak out loud. But as much as Bigger’s mindset is a worthy exploration, the voiceover stumbles on peculiar out-of-character observations, including one lifted from Helen Keller. (“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”) Bigger’s mindset holds greater intrigue when he ruminates on the role he’s forced to play to survive, at one point seeing himself as “playing the good negro” when every other option dries up. While Bigger isn’t exactly innocent, he knows the specific nature of his guilt will never be fully understood as he becomes yet another black man trapped by the system.
With Sanders’ face as its provocative centerpiece, “Native Son” functions best as a collage of the alienation that defines Bigger’s life. In more than one sequence, crowds speed past him as he stands in place, gazing at nothing in particular, resulting in the kind of powerful audiovisual motif the filmmaker might have exhibited in a gallery context and obtained the same result.
As it trudges toward a painful conclusion, “Native Son” turns Bigger’s journey into a minimalist showdown defined by a near-empty arena solely populated by police officers and a black man running out of options. Putting the literary figure in closeup, “Native Son” recognizes the legacy of Bigger Thomas as a terrified outcast at odds with the world around him, and uncertain if he’s a victim of persecution or his own rash judgement. The finale’s poignant images linger in the devastating possibility that the truth is somewhere in between, and impossible to sort out. Nearly 80 years after the book’s release, it’s the same sad story.
“Native Son” premiered in U.S. Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. HBO will release it later this year.