“Native Son challenges society to stop objectifying Black culture, showing how worshiping it can be just as dehumanizing as loathing or fearing it.”
Title: Native Son
Director: Rashid Johnson 👨🏾🇺🇸
Writers: Screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks 👩🏾🇺🇸 based on the original novel by Richard Wright 👨🏾🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Native Son popped my Sundance cherry. 🍒 It was the first film I saw on my first trip to any film festival ever, and I’m happy it was Rashid Johnson’s adaptation because a lot of it worked for me. The tonal eccentricity; the opaque characters you have to work at figuring out; the local specificity of Chicago; and the grandiosity that lets you know you’re not just watching a movie—all these things helped deliver a personal milestone that I’m happy to frame and put on the wall.
I’m not sure whether reading the original novel by Richard Wright from 1940 would have changed my perspective, and if you’re wondering about that too, plenty of reviews examine Johnson’s film from that very lens. But from someone who had no idea what to expect, Native Son burst out of the gate with a heady mix of slick styling and thematic muscle.
In the center of this vortex, exciting new(-ish) actor Ashton Sanders entrances as the tortured protagonist, Bigger Thomas. His wide but haunted eyes counter an air of slouched adolescence, the full effect jumbled into a wise, yet naive package that lends itself perfectly to the oncoming tragedy that hits him like a bus midway through the film.
Unfortunately, that's precisely where things go awry. I could handle the halting pace, and I was happy to guess at Bigger’s psyche for the first half of the film, which feels amusingly glib as he flits between home and various Chicago locales clad in black leather and bright green hair, listening to classical music. Throughout these scenes, it’s fun to try and see what makes the man tick, and to assume that esteemed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (who wrote the screenplay) will walk you towards an affecting resolution.
But when Bigger performs a major, dramatic act later in the film, tethered by no rhyme or reason, I was woken from the crafted dream rather than sucked into its undertow. I’d taken for granted that Bigger was a rational creature. But once his motivations stop making sense, the entire foundation liquefies and all we’re left with is confusion.
It's with that lingering sense of “What just happened?” that we finish the movie, and I only wish I could entreaty Johnson and Parks for just a bit more glue between the film’s disparate parts. I love a mystery, but not when its stepping stones lead you off a narrative cliff.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, but barely
I’ve seen Native Son compared to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018), the two sharing off-the-wall artistry and Black male leads who defy stereotypes. But I’ll add one more similarity: The two films sideline girlfriends played by actors capable of so much more.
In Native Son, Kiki Layne plays Bessie and while she does enjoy a bit more realness than the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope that Tessa Thompson portrays in Sorry to Bother You, she simply doesn’t see enough screen time to feel like more than an accessory. The film barely even passes the Bechdel Test, and when it does it's only because Bigger’s rich employer, the college-aged Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley), has dragged them on a double date with her and her boyfriend and starts off by asking Bessie about herself.
These two women do play pivotal roles, but we never get the sense that the filmmakers care about them as individuals. They push the plot along, sacrificing their own emotional and physical well-beings to serve the broader goal of rendering Bigger’s story arc and characterization.
Here’s another Sorry to Bother You parallel: Both films present a moral choice to their Black leads. Do you perform whiteness to survive in a society that fears your skin color? Or do you stay true to yourself and consequently lose access to resources or even jeopardize your physical safety?
While Sorry to Bother You presents this dichotomy with relish, told through dark surrealism and absurdist humor, Native Son harnesses the same dilemma to deliver a tragic drama and thriller. They showcase the inner turmoil that comes with having to maintain double consciousness, a term W.E.B. Du Bois first coined in 1903 that describes the exhausting mental process of navigating a majority space as a minority individual.
In this case, Bigger is forced between earning money the admittedly stereotypical “Black” way—helping his friend rob a convenience store—or taking the demeaning job of donning white gloves as he caters to the whims of the Daltons, a rich and wannabe “woke” family. Even before we meet the patriarch Henry Dalton (Bill Camp), the mere waiting room of Bigger’s job interview foretells the insidiousness of him choosing the latter path, of assimilating into white culture. Ethnic objets d’art and paintings grace every corner of the house, including an abstract nude of a Black woman that hammers home the fetishistic way the Daltons see people of color.
The film goes on to probe the idea of problematic white allies, to an even deeper extent than Jordan Peele does in Get Out (2017) which posed, for me at least, the first mainstream depiction of fake allies. The Daltons are smarter than that—Mary would never say to Bigger’s face that she would vote for Obama a third time if she could. But she does get overly defensive after asking where Bigger would be traveling to for the summer, and he jokes about not exactly owning a summer home. “Wouldn’t it be worse if I just assumed?” she gripes, crossing her arms over her knees as her boyfriend, Bigger, and Bessie laugh at her on the beach. Not just here, but time and time again we see Mary and her boyfriend bring up topics of race unprompted, as they force themselves into Black spaces through coercing Bigger into the role of a cultural tour guide. As someone in their employ, Bigger can’t exactly say no, and so they push and push themselves into his safe spaces until he breaks.
This multilayered messaging makes Native Son one of the latest in a stream of films from Black directors that challenge society to stop objectifying Black culture, showing how even worshiping it can be just as dehumanizing as loathing or fearing it. Whether it’s Get Out with its translation of this phenomenon into literal horror, or Native Son that shows the traumatic effects of being owned and manipulated, it’s exciting and a privilege to watch these films unpack a very complicated issue.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.83/5
Native Son starts with nothing but potential. But between the massive talent of Johnson and Parks, something gets lost in translation. The film never reaches the heights it sets out to achieve, and women are again frustratingly disrespected in order to further a man's story.
When it hits HBO on April 6th, however, I’d still highly recommend a viewing. In the ongoing conversation surrounding race and its more squirrely incarnations of cultural appropriation or false allyship, Native Son gives us plenty to think about and wraps it all in a visually sultry package that entices, but never quite satisfies.