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‘Native Son’ May Go Over People’s Heads, But Its Filmmakers Say Their Goal Was ‘Never Pandering’

Director Rashid Johnson and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks want to raise the level of discourse.

Native Son Sundance

“Native Son” at Sundance.

Native Son” made headlines even before its world premiere at Sundance, with HBO Films acquiring Rashid Johnson’s directorial debut from A24 before anyone in Park City had the chance to see it. But reviews have been mixed, with some critics objecting to the way a key plot twist from Richard Wright’s novel was handled and the change in the film’s tone that results. It’s a challenging film – and if you haven’t read Wright’s novel, it’s a roller coaster ride to watch. It doesn’t deal in absolutes, and it lacks characters that can be easily classified as “good” or “bad.”

As more and more viewers have had the chance to see it, screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks has a message: “If you feel it going over your head, your job is to reach. You gotta reach up there, because we cannot give up on each other.” Parks was in the IndieWire Studio presented by Dropbox, where IndieWire’s Christian Blauvelt asked her about the film’s more challenging aspects.

Johnson agreed: “Our goal was to never pander,” he said. “We never wanted to pander, and we wanted to keep the level of discourse at a tier that we thought was accessible to all, which a high level of discourse is.”

It appears to have worked so far, as Johnson added that most who have seen “Native Son” already have “fulfilled our expectations of their level of sophistication and their ability to grasp onto these challenging and moving parts.”

“It’s a catalyst to level up,” Parks said. “That’s what cinema should do, it’s what art should do, and writing and great performances give us an opportunity to take our abilities to the next level.”

Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”), Margaret Qualley (“The Leftovers”), Nick Robinson, KiKi Layne, Elizabeth Marvel, David Alan Grier, Sanaa Lathan, and Bill Camp star in “Native Son,” an adaptation of Wright’s 1940 novel of the same name. Watch an excerpt of Parks and Johnson’s comments below.

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