By Monica Castillo
Ominous music hovers over much of Rashid Johnson’s adaptation of Native Son. Even when nothing is happening and no one is talking, there is a sense of foreboding. Keyed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s music, the audience is conditioned to anticipate that moment of horror. That’s because, in a sense, a young black man like Bigger Thomas is never safe; danger hovers over many of his — and others’ — decisions.
When Richard Wright’s book, Native Son, was first released in 1940, Bigger was a young man living in Chicago’s South Side with his mom and sister in the 1930s. Screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks’s movie adaptation, which opened the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and was recently acquired by HBO Films, updates Bigger’s story to the modern day, to a sleeker Chicago, but one that’s not much kinder to black men like him. Played by Ashton Sanders in the film, Bigger is given an Afropunk-meets-metalhead makeover. Despite his loud green hair and eye-catching studded jackets, Bigger is soft-spoken and at times poetic. He’s a sensitive soul even while he tries to look and act tough to defend himself against the world. One of the few people who can see through his act is Bigger’s girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), a stylish hairdresser. Through a handful of monologues against a timelapse backdrop, Bigger explores his internal struggles in ways he never fully verbally articulates to others.
Much of the original book’s nuanced look at race, social attitudes, and the justice system remains intact in the movie and perhaps becomes even more pronounced in certain scenes. And although not exactly a horror movie like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Johnson's Native Son taps into similar themes of racism as a source of horror.
Bigger’s first meeting with his eventual boss, Mr. Dalton, is an example of the film’s uneasy racial dynamic. On a tip about a steady, well-paying job, Bigger reluctantly decides to meet with Mr. Dalton for an interview. The job is to work as a driver for Mr. Dalton, who incidentally is a wealthy real estate tycoon and a driving force behind the gentrification of his city. Bigger is hired very quickly — but suspiciously so. Mr. Dalton’s decision to hire a young black man doesn’t come across as altruistic; rather it seems done out of guilt or performative goodwill. It’s all the more painfully obvious when Mr. Dalton blurts out “I donate to the NAACP” in the middle of his already uncomfortable meeting with Bigger. It’ll remind many of the oft-quoted scene in Get Out, when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) meets his girlfriend’s father for the first time, who insists he would have voted for President Obama for a third time if he could.
(Left to right) Kiki Layne, Sanaa Lathan, Suzan-Lori Parks, Rashid Johnson, Nick Robinson, and Ashton Sanders from 'Native Son' pose for a portrait.
During that first visit, Mr. Dalton gives Bigger a tour of the grand house and is introduced to Mr. Dalton’s wife. Bigger puts his hand out to shake hers, but she doesn’t reciprocate, leaving a tense aftertaste to the meeting. It isn’t until after she walks away that Mr. Dalton explains that she’s blind. It does little to calm Bigger, who's still feeling uneasy about the encounter. His powerlessness in that situation only gets worse the longer he stays in the job.
As the tour continues, the camera slowly follows Mr. Dalton and Bigger through the cavernous home. Although the place is spotlessly clean and organized, it has the elements of a haunted mansion. The camera moves cautiously while Bigger looks around, both in awe and unease, as their wealth engulfs, isolates, and leaves him vulnerable to the whims of the people who own it.
While walking through the halls, rooms and staircases, Bigger’s eyes drift past several works of art by black artists or featuring black subjects. The works are both contemporary and traditional: There is an African face mask in a case in Mr. Dalton’s office, and as the two men make their way upstairs, they pass by a framed Kara Walker silhouette. Despite the damages their real estate developments have caused black communities in Chicago, the Daltons are collecting these works to show off their enlightened view of black people, or even a need to own a culture as part of their amassed wealth. Will Bigger become a part of their collection, too?
Similarly, when Bigger meets Dalton's free-spirited and outspoken daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), she immediately wants to engage with him on political issues, oblivious to the effect that may have on his job or on his life. While not purposefully villainous as Allison Williams’ character in Get Out, her ignorance can prove just as dangerous, accidentally setting off a chain of events that leads to tragedy.
Along this racial divide, there are two main opposing forces Bigger struggles with in Native Son. The first is Bigger’s fear for his life if he’s caught alone with the boss’ (white) daughter as their relationship intensifies. He tries to keep her at a distance, knowing that Mr. Dalton’s goodwill toward him may end if he’s caught with the rich man’s only child. The second is his fight to hold onto a piece of his identity while making a living. After Bigger spends more time working for the Daltons than with his friends, one of them confronts him and accuses Bigger of losing his black identity for the sake of working for a white man.
Native Son may not sit well with all viewers, but many may find value in how the movie confronts uncomfortable racial inequalities. Eventually, those eerie visual, narrative, and sound clues build to a terrifying twist, one that’s shown in excruciating detail. Bigger has always been a complicated character, but in reviving his story with fresh eyes, a new generation will have the chance to sort through his story’s legacy.