This is the second installment of “Breaking Black,” a new weekly column focused on emerging black talent.
Award-winning multidisciplinary artist Rashid Johnson’s thoughtful adaptation of Richard Wright’s landmark 1939 novel “Native Son” isn’t exactly the start of a franchise, but Johnson’s first feature exists on a continuum: The film represents his latest effort to reimagine a respected artwork.
While his filmmaking career is young, Johnson has amassed a body of work that includes installations and theatrical productions that all reflect a similar impulse. But with the A24-produced “Native Son” now on HBO, that impulse is reaching its largest audience to date.
Prior to “Native Son,” Johnson only had experience directing for the stage in far more experimental terms. In 2013, he revised Amiri Baraka’s award-winning controversial 1964 play “Dutchman” for the saunas at the Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th street in New York City. Anticipating the subject matter Johnson would tackle in adapting “Native Son,” Baraka’s play follows a lascivious young white woman who lures a young black man to his demise.
“Part of the performance was that both the actors and the audience were subject to the conditions of the heat,” said Johnson of his “Dutchman” adaptation. “We tried to shoot some footage of the rehearsal, but the cameras we used were really struggling to capture footage in that environment, so at one point I decided that it was one of those performances where if you weren’t ever present for it then you’d just have to settle for hearing about it.”
And audiences did certainly hear about it, as word-of-mouth led to sold out shows, despite mixed reviews by theater critics. For Johnson, who said he always aims for audience discomfort, his “Dutchman” represented the kind of freedom to think in unorthodox ways that has become his main priority.
“People have this expectation that art is somehow essentially generous,” Johnson said, challenging what he perceives to be a general belief that art should provide an escape from real world problems as opposed to being a vessel for them. “I’m generally interested in creating work that pushes people up against their limits, and I think that I’ve so far been able to do that.”
In addition to Baraka’s “Dutchman” and “Native Son,” Johnson titled a 2016 visual art installation after another significant work by a black artist — pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates,” which marked an early professional flirtation with cinema.
This “reimagining” of Micheaux’s landmark film was a soaring installation for Garage Atrium at the Moscow Museum of Art (his first in Russia, and the largest he’s done), which housed a distinct, living ecosystem of various kinds of plants and cultural objects that visitors to the Museum could engage with.
“My mother is a historian, and I was exposed to a lot of important black historical and literary figures at a young age,” said Johnson. His father, meanwhile, owned a small electronics and radio communication company. He summarizes the contrasting views of the world that shaped his formative years as “on the floor between my father’s laboratory and my mother’s library.”
From an early age, Johnson understood the importance of not only preserving black cultural history, but also critically engaging with it, especially as an African American artist who benefits from that legacy.
“I’m firmly committed to my own originality, my own perspective, my own understanding of the world, but that is married to the understanding of the world that people had prior to me participating in it,” Johnson said. “Progress is made by taking ideas of those who came before us and running them through the ringer, delving deep into what the concerns of the thinker and artist prior to you had. And as a result, you come up with your own sensibilities, your own understanding of the world. That’s always kind of been how I’ve looked at the work.”
And in the case of “Native Son” Johnson presents a worldview that may be even more cynical than the one implied in Wright’s novel. Johnson opted to omit the devastating scene in which protagonist Bigger Thomas brutally kills girlfriend Bessie from the film. “I couldn’t bear including that level of violence towards a woman in our current environment,” he said. But his contemporary depiction of an accidental murder remains almost as disturbing as Wright’s own passage from 80 years ago.
The message for Johnson is that the options available for a young black man of Bigger Thomas’ socioeconomic background, caught in the predicament that leads him to commit a crime, haven’t improved in eight decades.
“That scene is definitely not without pessimism,” said Johnson. “There’s a physiological conditioning of racism that is still relevant in the mind of a young black man like Bigger, faced with those circumstances. Not to suggest that absolutely nothing has changed, because of course much has changed; but that even today he could feel that he was in a life or death situation, it’s a physiological condition that forces him to make the choice that he does, which is ultimately the tragedy for all of us.”
Johnson’s enters into a longstanding creative dialogue that stretches across generations of black storytelling. For years, Wright’s “Native Son” has been seen as a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s notorious racist novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which was published in the late 19th century. In addition, Micheaux’s “Within Our Gates” was a response to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915). And Baraka’s “Dutchman” was his response to the rise of Black Nationalism. Is Johnson’s contemporary take on Wright’s novel likewise a response or in reaction to something specific?
“Initially, I thought of bringing it to the screen during the Obama administration, when we had this example of black exceptionalism living in the White House,” the filmmaker said, adding that Obama gave him the agency to think about creating black characters who were in some ways “less exceptional,” but were just as deeply complex and worth talking about. Like many Americans, he hoped Obama’s election meant that the country was closer to growing comfortable with having frank conversations about the complications of race, and more specifically, the experience of blackness.
Of course, the 2016 election changed all that. “I felt stupid in some respect by Obama’s presidency, because it really felt like something very important had just happened,” Johnson said. “We quickly found ourselves in a very different America, one that traveled from this shining black protagonist on the hill, to one of the most blatantly racist presidents in my lifetime. So the story took on so many different lives as I was developing it, and the volatile psychological state of America is what I’m most likely reacting to.”
Johnson’s professional journey began after he completed an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago some 15 years ago and earned his first solo exhibit at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in New York. Since then, he has presented shows at major institutions and galleries around the world — from Venice to Athens and beyond. MOMA, Guggenheim, and the Whitney Museum have all added his works to their permanent collections.
And while Johnson isn’t quite ready to return behind the camera anytime soon, as a multidisciplinary artist, he definitely isn’t done with cinema yet. In the near-term, he’s excited to be returning to his visual arts roots, prepping for multiple museum exhibitions, including one at the Aspen Art Museum and the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City.
Needless to say, he said that he was in no rush to accumulate the same level of prestige in the film world. But there are potential future adaptations he has his eyes on, including James Baldwin’s tragic love story “Giovanni’s Room” (1956), and Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” (2015), a biting satire about one man’s attempt to reintroduce segregation in America.
“I’m reading and thinking about film,” Johnson said. “It’s always in my heart, in my mind. So I imagine that I would be making something at some point. I don’t know if it’s in the near future, but people will see me in this arena again.”