Often there comes along a film that is difficult to stomach, not because of the bloody violence or graphic sexual scenes displayed in front of you, but because of the subject matter that hits too close to home. One such film premiered at Sundance earlier this year leaving its audience silent as they reflected on the events that transpired.
That film is Native Son, directed by post-black artist Rashid Johnson and screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, is a 21st-century adaption of the 1940s novel of the same name written by Richard Wright starring Moonlight actor Ashton Sanders and If Beale Street Could Talk actress Kiki Layne. Over the course of many decades, Native Son has been previously adapted into unsuccessful films and plays, but the 2019 adaption has the solution to the problem. Johnson and Parks wanted to create a rendition that is relevant to the current American Society we are living in and addresses real problems about poverty, racism, and outright stereotyping in inner cities.
Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas (Sanders), a young black man coming to terms with his reality in the inner-city of Chicago. As the film begins, we notice that Thomas has a vendetta against destroying the black stereotypes cast upon him. He does not dress, act, or behave in the way that society around him thinks he should behave. More critically, Thomas loves punk-rock and classical music, has green hair, and painted fingernails. As he transverses across Chicago, he often comments on the society around him, allowing the audience to understand his inner thoughts and grasp his intellectual process. However, the more he tries to be himself the more reality weighs in on him as he faces the pressures of providing for his family, giving his girlfriend Bessie (Kiki Layne) the world, and proving to his friends that he is every bit as tough as they are. After being hired as a chauffeur for one of the wealthiest men in Chicago, Henry Dalton (Bill Camp), things seem to be going well until a catastrophic event with Dalton’s daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), turns Thomas’ success into an American tragedy.
What makes the tragedy gut-wrenching is that similar events have and will continue to take place in American Society. The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee reports that “one in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared with one in every six Latino males, and one in every 17 white males, if current incarceration trends continue.” The tension of not being a statistic is a driving force of Thomas’ behavior, as he reacts to the anticipation and assumptions people have built around him. If it were not for those assumptions and outright stereotyping, then perhaps his story (like many other young black men) would not have been a tragedy, but a triumph.
Johnson and Parks add another layer to the story by addressing how black women feel and respond to black men being locked up or gunned down on the streets. These viewpoints are most evident in Bessie’s character who serves as Thomas’ steady rock and voice of reason. Bessie encourages Thomas to strive for better things and rise above the violence and stubbornness that plagues the men of the inner city of Chicago. As much as Native Son is a tragedy, it is also a harrowing tale of heartbreak between two lovers.
Furthermore, stereotypes can have a significant effect on a person of color’s mental health, and the way Native Son addressed them is outright brilliant. Thomas felt trapped by the standards he was supposed to live up to and overcome, while Bessie felt the need to live up to the “ride or die” standards of a woman set by the black community.
Johnson’s feature-length directorial debut Native Son is a hard watch, but an essential observation on American Society and the people who are oppressed by it. Parks’ script not only does the story justice but furthers along the much-needed discussion about the mental well-being of young black men and women. Sanders and Layne’s performance and onscreen chemistry will leave you spellbound and damn near teary-eyed before the credits end. Native Son is an early 2019 release, but film lovers and activist alike will be talking about this powerful piece of social commentary for years.