By Jourdain Searles
Richard Wright’s Native Son, first published in 1940, is a landmark work in the canon of African-American literature. It’s surprising then that the story has only been adapted to the screen twice: first in 1951 with author Wright playing the lead, and again in 1986 with actor Victor Love taking on the role of Bigger Thomas, a young Black man living in Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. But neither adaptation caught on with audiences, so it was inevitable that another adaptation would eventually make its way onto our screens. This time, the story is in the care of artist and director Rashid Johnson.
When I sat down with Johnson to discuss his process for the film at a New York press day ahead of its HBO premiere on April 6, he revealed that the book had been in his life for a long time. "This is a story I was exposed to when I was quite a bit younger," he said. "When I was 15, it was introduced to me by my mother. She gave the book to me with a caveat that she thought Bigger was a really challenging character." Johnson grew into adulthood fascinated with the novel and was eager at the chance to bring it to the screen. As a Black man and a Chicago native himself, it’s no wonder Johnson would choose such a personal text as the basis for his first feature film. The visual artist went on to express a "fascination with the antihero," finding himself drawn to Bigger as a somewhat monstrous yet sympathetic representation of Black male frustration and rage.
The novel tells the story of Bigger as a young man born into poverty and trying to make a better life for himself. He gets a job working for a white family and, for a moment, his future seems bright. Unfortunately, the pressures of being a Black man in America get to Bigger, and his breakdown leads to tragedy. Bigger is a complicated character — his violent acts stemming from the feeling of always being perceived as a villain before doing anything wrong.
Ashton Sanders as Bigger Thomas
Johnson found the previous adaptations of the book to be lacking, referring to them as "illustrations of the novel." He stressed that his vision was more "reinterpretation" than adaptation. In his version, the intention was to give the story a life of its own, changing key details of Bigger’s character, like why he makes his choices, and most interesting, changing the way his story ends. Of the change made to the ending — which I won’t spoil here — Johnson wanted to "best represent the age we’re living in."
Johnson’s vision of Native Son has been in development since 2015, with the first draft of the screenplay being completed by acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks in mid-2017. 2015 was a time of incremental transformation for the Black male protagonist onscreen. That year saw the releases of Creed and Dope, both films center on characters who are reckoning with contemporary Black masculinity and identity. Since then, cinema has seen fascinating films tackling race relations and the place of Black men in society: Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men, and Barry Jenkins’s masterful Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk. Native Son comes out on the heels of those films, continuing the conversations around blackness and performative masculinity.
With Parks and master cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, A Star Is Born), Johnson crafts a contemporary vision of Native Son. In this modern story, Bigger (Ashton Sanders) is a Black punk with green hair, rings, a leather jacket, and a thirst for knowledge. In the early moments of the film, we see a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. This is a Bigger who likes hard rock and classical music, a Bigger who strives to stand out and rise above what he believes that the world intends for him. His girlfriend, Bessie, (Kiki Layne) sports a septum piercing and openly admires Bigger for his ambition and individuality. Jenkins alums from Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, respectively, Sanders and Layne also went to the same college — Chicago’s DePaul University — and recently worked together on the sci-fi film Captive State. As Bigger and Bessie, their chemistry is palpable.
Sanders and KiKi Layne as tragic lovers Bigger and Bessie
Both Sanders and Layne felt their characters were fascinating portrayals of young Black people. "Bigger being an Afropunk is so appropriate right now," remarked Sanders. He goes on to discuss how he felt "spiritually connected to the character," even though he had to "remove pieces of himself" in order to "fully focus in on exactly who Bigger was." And when discussing Bessie, Layne spoke of the beloved literary characters she's gotten a chance to play in her young career: "I have always had a vision for my career," she said, "telling stories that can really encourage young actresses like me and tell Black stories in a way that just hasn’t been done."
"It's been really beautiful to be a part of putting these works of literature to life because that gets people interested in the authors and their other writing,” she adds. Layne understands how inspirational her performances onscreen have the potential to be for dark-skinned women and girls: "Beale Street… seeing a love like that," she goes on, "me being dark-skinned, natural hair, and it's still all about this love and tenderness and vulnerability."
And, as white actors in a very Black film, co-stars Margaret Qualley and Nick Robinson — who play well-meaning rich girl Mary and her working-class boyfriend Jan, respectively — hope Native Son will "invite a white audience to be somewhat introspective." Neither actor read the book before filming — Johnson insisted that they cultivate their characters from a fresh perspective — but, perhaps as a result, Mary and Jan often come off as comical characters, echoing the awkward, well-meaning whiteness that was skewered in 2017’s Get Out. Still, they aren’t portrayed as the villains of the story. Instead of pointing the finger at any one person, Native Son chooses to implicate the times we live in and the societal structures that serve as a barrier to progress.
Nick Robinson and Margaret Qualley as Jan and Mary, respectively
Overall, Native Son is an allegorical performance piece trying to invoke empathy and understanding, as well as spark discussion; the narrative is secondary to the ideas being expressed. Ultimately, the film hinges on Bigger’s relatability, which is more than apparent to Sanders. As a Black man in America, he says, he has "the same struggles, the same anxieties, the same fears."