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Sundance Review: ‘Native Son’ can’t escape the shadow of Richard Wright

At the very least, Rashid Johnson confirms the continual relevance of the classic 1940 novel

 

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is out in Utah all week long covering the 2019 Sundance Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.


Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders) is one pissed off dude. Sporting green hair, a graffiti-covered leather jacket and a near constant brood, he’s outwardly expressing his aggression at the world — frustration at his father’s early death, at his mother’s new boyfriend, at his shitty job as courier — and the only person who understands him is his girl Bessie (KiKi Layne). But one day, his life is thrown into an entirely opposite direction: As a favor to his mother, he agrees to interview for a job as a driver for a wealthy Chicago family, and the pay is so good that he decides to stick around. And so Bigger spends much of his days driving around members of Dalton family, including their progressive daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend Jan (Nick Robinson), whom view him as potentially more than just another household employee. Little do they know that their lives will be forever altered by this meeting. So begins Rashid Johnson’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, which left me underwhelmed and frustrated, and not for the reasons that I think Johnson hopes that I was.

Why? Well, the screenplay, penned by Pulitzer winner Suzan Lori-Parks, is perhaps the film’s greatest flaw, but I’m not sure if anybody could have done a better job bringing this classic novel into the present, which speaks to the difficulty of this adaptation. She’s able to bring in a lot of interesting conflicts into the mix, especially about the nature of blackness in this country, that are well-worth digestion after the fact, but it ultimately fails as a propulsive story. Parks’ biggest struggle in adapting Wright is in maintaining narrative tension, and given the abridged nature of the ending as it is here, the film’s pivotal incident, Big’s accidental murder of Mary, is pushed to the end of the second act, well over Native Son’s hour marker.

 
 

Instead of doing anything extra, the film just spins its wheels when it’s not actively pushing the narrative forward, inventing beach outings and other slightly meaningless moments to fill up its time. And when it finally does get to that moment, Johnson fumbles the execution, opting for a dull faux-horror style that is primed for unintentional laughter. That said, the following sequence, which sees Bigger dispose of the body in what can only be referred to as Chekov’s Furnace, provides cinematographer Matthew Libatique with a chance to make some striking and fascinating compositions, freeing him from the TV movie staginess that blankets the film’s first hour. But it’s too little too late, given how many pivotal moments were wasted in the early-going.

So much of this time could have potentially been used to expand our knowledge of our central character or get close to him and those he loves (or hates), but Parks and Johnson settle for the time-honored tradition of having a few minutes worth of narration attempt to compensate for the interiority of a first-person novel. And as such, he just broods without much accompanying characterization, and, thankfully, Sanders is an actor with the bona fides to make up for whatever deficiencies the screenplay possesses. He’s a striking and interesting figure, especially when outfitted in his punk costuming, which is dope as fuck, and he suggests a true depth to Bigger, beyond what appears on the page. Layne is just as good here as she was in If Beale Street Could Talk, and the scenes that her and Sanders share are full of curdling love and, near the end, palpable menace. Less assured are Qualley and Robinson, who are essentially only micro-aggression generators and problem-causers for Big, and their characters never transcend their initial vapidity into something, you know, more real. But, outside of the main names, you’ll find a roster sheet of worthy character actors occupying the film’s margins, including Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel (whose character’s blindness is weirdly a point of terror for Johnson), Saana Lathan, Stephen Henderson, and, puzzlingly, David Alan Grier. It’s a well-cast little film, and it’s worth recommending on that basis alone.

Anyways, I’m certain that Native Son will have a long enough shelf-life out in the world, either as a teacher’s visual aide or book club accompaniment, given how this film proves how, with very little effort, Wright’s classic maintains its continual relevance. And on that front, this experiment succeeds, though it fails at most everything else. It could have been so much more, but what we have here isn’t as dire as, say, HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 from last year. Hell, you might like it more than I did! But don’t delude yourself into thinking that this is better than the book, because it most definitely isn’t.

 
 

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of Sundance Institute; photo by Matthew Libatique.