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Sundance 2019 Review: ‘Native Son’

Sundance 2019 Review: ‘Native Son’

“So, that happened,” was all anyone could say after the premiere of the new HBO Film Native Son. It premiered in the Eccles Theater on the first day of the Sundance Film Festival to a largely white audience. An audience who, judging by the gasps and other sounds when the third act rolled around, did not read Richard Wright’s seminal novel on Blackness in America. This reaction is not uncommon. In fact, so many people enter adaptation screenings without a familiarity with the original work.

You can’t do that with Native Son. The adaptation of Wright’s words to screen (although modernized) comes out just as gangly as the original literary behemoth of a novel. It is too sluggish to hold the audience through the first two acts. That’s not the only problem. Despite the great story and the greatness that happens in the third act, the film comes off as trying too hard to make audiences love a character that they spend half the movie trying to figure out. Some understanding of the story, a pre-screening lecture (I volunteer as Tribute), or some Cliff Notes to study so that we all know what the hell is going in the first half of the film and with its main character.

Ashton Sanders appears in Native Sonby Rashid Johnson, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtsey of Sundance Institute | photo by Matthew Libatique
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Othered Blackness…and a Black Stereotype

One of the problems with the film is that we spend way too much time trying to figure out the main character Bigger. In the book, he is a Black man who ventured much too close to whiteness, sometimes overstepping the line between the two worlds. He is “othered” by his Black community and Blackness keeps him at arm’s length of the whites he has befriended. In the film, the Bigger is played by a lanky Ashton Saunders who eagerly takes on the role. He loves punk and Beethoven, paints his nails black, wears rings and coats with messages on them. He is like so many of us Black nerds who listened to, dressed, and lived the punk experience.

However, Bigger was also the stereotypical Black man in several ways as well. He is set to rob a convenience store to get the money to change his station in the community, instead of getting a job and following the blueprint spoonfed to generations of Black people. Smoking weed with his friends all the time and can’t ever hold down a job long is another stereotype on display.

On one hand, Bigger’s otherness gives him life and uniqueness that is quite refreshing. This quality also makes his relationship with girlfriend Bessie (played by Kiki Layne) so much more intriguing. She loves him for who he is, even if she can’t quite figure that out. The problem is that the audience can’t figure Bigger out either. The stereotypical elements clash with the othered parts of him to create a figure that we can’t quite grasp. By the time he seeks conformity, those elements seem to disappear altogether.

Dragging Native Son

Unfortunately, director Rashid Johnson spends way too much time trying to get us to understand and like Bigger when he should have just presented the man and then ran with the rest of the story elements. Instead, the film drags along, forcing the plot into a near standstill at times. A similar dragging phenomenon was one of the complaints with the film Widows, which ultimately didn’t perform to its potential at the box office. Audiences these days need that constant stimulation. They won’t find it with Native Son.

I will also add that it is important to have some foreknowledge of the narrative before viewing. Audiences could have followed the overworked portions a little better when the dragging begins. There are certain parts of the story that story nerds like me search for. We love to question the adaptation by asking, “what parts will be just like the book,” “what parts are omitted to fit the film genre,” and “will the new stuff work with the old?” Finding these answers will keep you somewhat invested with Bigger’s story when it starts to drag.

That Third Act Though

In Native Son, an important event occurs in the middle of the novel that changes things up a bit. At that point, Bigger turns from “this man we are trying to figure out” to “this man we can’t help but judge.” The audience came to life with their reactions to the event and its aftermath. The woman sitting beside me in the theater obviously had no idea that part was coming. She just kept repeating, “I can’t watch,” and at one point hid her face in her lap, with her hand over her ears. Another woman nearby was angry that such a scene was happening. Most people were stunned.

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I won’t tell you what this act is, but I will share the words of the Black woman who wrote the script, “It wasn’t until Bigger started trying to follow the rules that shit went down.” He lost himself and conformed. This compromise sets Bigger adrift and making some very bad decisions that eventually spiral out of control. This leads to an ending that is very triggering but may just be more satisfying than the book ending, as it has Bigger returning to his othered, punk self.

Confession here: I was very reluctant to write this review. Richard Wright is one of my fave literary figures, so I hate to disparage any attempt at bringing his work to the masses. However, such heady material is difficult to adapt. That’s why it hasn’t been done until now. And it wasn’t like Johnson completely ruined the adaptation. The director actually teased out the otherness in a way that made Bigger more likable than he was in the book! Johnson also makes it clear that Bigger was placed on the path to destruction the moment he abandoned his true self to conformity and the lie that is the American dream. Bigger and Bessie were never meant to be 9 to 5 workers with a starter home and 2.5 kids. Bigger should have understood that and continued to rebel against conformity. There were other elements that Johnson helped clarify as well.

So I write this review giving you my honest opinion. I wanted to love this film, it had so much going for it. Sanaa Lathan played Bigger’s mom (with not nearly enough screentime), and David Alan Grier was her boyfriend.

Sanaa Lathan at the ‘Native Son’ premiere, Sundance Film Festival 2019. Photo courtesy Corey Ransberg.

Layne and Saunders have amazing chemistry on screen, making young Black love look so wonderful. Are not enough to make this movie a great one. The problems with Native Son are too big to overlook.

I wonder if the solution would be to air the film in segments. A miniseries would have accommodated the drag and allowed for some more depth in Bigger to help us with figuring him out. A series in three parts, that would have been a better alternative. It was just too much for one sitting, one story. Wright’s complex story and the attempt to educate the masses would have been a lot more digestible and something audiences could walk away from satisfied after each viewing

Native Son premiered January 25th at the Sundance Internationa Film Festival.

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