When the credits rolled for a mostly white audience of first time director Rashid Johnson and scribe Suzan Lori-Parks reimagined unnerving, adrenaline shot adaption of Richard Wright’s Native Son you could hear a pin drop. Fate. Fear. Flight. Manhunt defines the chapters in the life of Bigger Thomas.
Native Son is the story of Bigger (Big for short) who is a young man with definitive style. His hair is green, his clothes are borderline hip-hop punk and his musical taste range from classical to alternative. He’s complex, multi-layered and a human being that experiences tragedy that he will never recover from.
Let’s address the obvious. This isn’t the 1940’s novel. This version has been reimagined and set in modern-day Chicago. Many audiences member at the World Premiere were feeling some kind of way about other changes made and had no problem expressing so during the Q&A afterwards. Changes that include the masturbation scene being cut and the ending being flipped. In response to critics, Suzan Lori-Parks addressed those concerns, ” A couple of years ago, we were all walking around saying we live in post-racial society right? And we (POC community) were like NO…but, we didn’t have ways to talk about the complexities that Bigger Thomas is still going through. It’s a recurring thing that we don’t have the tools to all about. Hopefully, this (Native Son) will give us the tools.”
Ashton Sanders (Bigger), who first grabbed our attention in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and the beautiful Kiki Layne (Mary) who made a splash in Barry’s follow-up If Beale Street Could Talk glow with their complex, multi-layered portrayals illustrating how harmful love can be at its euphoric highs and heart wrenching lows.
Personally, I needed a little time to think about all the themes illustrated within this piece and digest how I felt about it all. At the end of the day, I am still left with a million questions. What do you do when your love for another human being makes you forego your own happiness and safety? What constitutes as doing the right thing? When under pressure are you really making the right decision or reacting out of fear?
The cinematic method in which Johnson decides to weave in and out of the Bigger Chapters with a simple juxtaposition of Bigger standing completely still while the world swirls and rapidly flows around him like water in a stream are poetically impressive. Native Son will leave you asking questions. Native Son will unnerve you, make you uncomfortable and some images will stick with you for a lifetime. It struck a nerve when Richard Wright published it in 1940 and will strike an even larger chord when HBO releases it on April 6th with themes ranging from family, police shootings, unrequited love, obsession and prejudice.