Ashton Sanders offers a captivating, uneven literary adaptation
Ashton Sanders in “Native Son”
Much of the source material remains intact in HBO’s titular adaptation of Richard Wright’s groundbreaking 1940 novel, “Native Son.” But artist and first-time director Rashid Johnson, along with screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan Lori-Parks, have brought Wright’s novel into our current moment, and in doing so have created a lyrically mesmerizing meditation on racism and identity in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Set in modern-day Chicago, “Native Son” follows Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders), a young black man from an economically depressed neighborhood who is given an opportunity of a lifetime to become a chauffeur for Henry Dalton (Bill Camp), a wealthy businessman. Soon, Bigger is enticed by a world of wealth and privilege, including a precarious friendship with Mary, the entitled daughter—a relationship that will alter his life forever.
“Native Son” boasts a phenomenal roster of talent. Margaret Qualley and Bill Camp, another perennial that guy, do their due diligence as the privileged daughter and taciturn businessman respectively, while KiKi Layne gives a subtle but not slight performance that acts as companion to her turn in last year’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” But Ashton Sanders is the revelation here. Sanders made his auspicious breakout playing the middle Chiron in “Moonlight” and while he only carried one third of that film, here he’s absolutely magnetic.
This adaptation feels less concerned with poverty than perception, particularly that of a character like Bigger who breaks through the stereotypes one may associate with his economically desperate neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago. From his green hair to the safety pinned leather jacket scrawled with the phrase “I’m Freaking Out,” Bigger is more Bad Brains than Boogie Down Productions. His musical choices swing between hardcore punk and Beethoven’s Ninth, confounding his peers.
“Native Son” not only features stellar performances in front of the camera but behind as well. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a longtime collaborator with Darren Arronofsky and most recently Oscar nominated for “A Star is Born,” photographs a Chicago that feels both decaying and decadent. You can feel his deft touch throughout the film, working with first-time director Johnson. It’s no surprise Libatique is also credited as a co-producer.
One of the early central conflicts in “Native Son” comes when Big finds himself torn between the high-paying chauffeur work or his best friend’s offer for a quick cash grab. He has two choices: Be “the help” or be a criminal. However, in the world of “Native Son,” the job of a chauffeur may just be the closest people like Big will ever get to the lifestyle of the wealthy and privileged, even if it comes with the cost of being perceived as some exotic thug to be looked upon with a mix of excitement and fear—like a caged beast. It all makes for a fascinating exploration of race and class.
“Native Son” veers into topical territory by diverting the climax of away from the denouement of Wright’s novel to a more socially conscious ending that draws on Chicago’s ongoing issues of police brutality. The closing imagery is arresting, but feels a bit too convenient of an ending for this powerful and thought-provoking adaptation.