Reel Reviews | Native Son (Sundance ’19)

by Tim Gordon

The latest adaptation of Richard Wright’s acclaimed novel, Native Son gets an update. The positive spin is that the film maintains many of the elements that made the initial novel a success nearly seven decades ago, which is also it’s undoing.

Set in modern day Chicago, Wright’s anti-hero Bigger Thomas (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders) is now a bike messenger living with his family in a sub-standard tenement in the hood. In this version, his character has evolved from a hopeless laborer to a young punk-esque teen who is rebellious due to his green hair, black fingernail polish, and alternative music choices.

Rotating his time between his crew and his girlfriend, Bessie (If Beale Street Could Talk’s Kiki Layne), Bigger is undergoing an extensional crisis where it’s clear that he seeks a better existence but doesn’t know how to get there. Both his mother, Ms. Thomas (Sanaa Lathan) and Bessie see his potential but Bigger is trapped in a dark world of his own making simply looking for the light.

He receives a golden opportunity when he is offered a chance to chauffeur for an upscale White family, The Daltons and their spoiled, young heiress, Mary (Margaret Qualley). While Bigger tries to protect his position, forces pull at him that makes that increasingly difficult.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog), this adaptation maintains the spine of Wright’s novel but in seeking to explore the psychology of the burden of Black men, it largely disappoints. Much of the things that made Wright’s novel successful in 1951 fail to translate to present day. Life is very different for most men of color today as opposed to the post-Jim Crow era that Wright’s seminal work was created.

Much like Director X’s woeful re-imagining of Superfly last year, which sought to update a film released four decades ago and simply transporting it to Atlanta and using many of the principles that worked so well in 1972 to present day fell flat and simply didn’t translate to either the politics or cultural norms of today. Native Son is similarly afflicted with many of the same issues as Lori Parks update leaves her boxed in to how much she can adapt Wright’s story without losing the story’s essence and soul.

The disappointment is that despite the limitations of the story, both Sanders and Layne acquit themselves well. Sanders possess a magnetic personality that jumps off the screen both in this film as well as his performance in Moonlight. The camera loves his face, especially in the film’s close-up scenes where you can feel the sincerity of his character’s plight written all over his tortured face.

Similarly, Layne displays another side of a love dynamic in this story as Bigger’s significant other who feels his frustration and tries nearly everything at her disposal to provide him with a safe haven. Pleading with Bigger to turn himself in and not turn her into a fugitive is one of the more heart-wrenching moments in the film. Layne has a bright career and her chemistry with Sanders is palpable.

Ultimately, Native Son remains a great source novel that will be difficult to adapt to present day due to the limitations of the story and the changing political times. While there may be many Black men who experience a sense of hopelessness and desperation, if Get Out taught us anything, these men can’t find solace working in these type of situations which place them squarely in the ‘sunken place” with no escape. Through no fault of his own, this Native Son fails to live up to the novel’s rich legacy.

Grade: D