Native Son: Compelling, falls short

Ashton Sanders appears in Native Son by Rashid Johnson, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of HBO

Native Son is a compelling film with strong performances but I can’t help but feel that something is lost in updating the story for present day.

Like the novel its based on, Native Son is set in Chicago.  Instead of the 1930s, Suzan-Lori Parks updates the story for a contemporary telling.  Is this a good idea?  I don’t know.  I haven’t read the novel written by Richard Wright so I’m not in a position to compare the film to the source material.  It’s very well possible that the book is better as they tend to be in most cases.  This is certainly the trouble that comes with adapting books to film.  Either they work or they don’t.  This isn’t to say that the film’s performances don’t work because they do.

Changing the years aside, some things don’t seem to change.  Does the film have the same impact as the book does?  I haven’t read it but quick online research shows that it’s not a book that aged well to say the least.

The green-haired Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders) finds work as a driver for businessman Will Dalton (Bill Camp).  He moves out of his home, where he lives with his mother (Sanaa Lathan) and two siblings, and into the much larger Evanston mansion of the wealthy Dalton family.  Before taking on this new job, Bigger is dating Bessie (KiKi Layne).  This is where Bigger meets Dalton’s daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley).  Before you know it, he starts to drive her around, too.  I won’t start to dive into the ins and outs here.  I’ll just say that–to put things simply–there is no happy ending here.  One moment changes both Bigger and Mary’s life forever.  The off-screen voiceover speaks to the panic that Bigger feels right as soon as it happens.

While the story in and of itself could certainly have had a stronger adaptation, Ashton Sanders makes the best of it.  One of the stars of the Oscar-winning Moonlight, Sanders is able to lift up the film in an incredible way.  We already knew from the earlier film that his star was on the rise but Native Son shows what he’s capable of doing with a large role.

While Native Son is no doubt a compelling film and the film’s themes show that some things don’t change, I can’t help but feel that Rashid Johnson’s directorial debut should have been a stronger feature.

DIRECTOR:  Rashid Johnson
SCREENWRITER:  Suzan-Lori Parks
CAST:  Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, KiKi Layne, Elizabeth Marvel, David Alan Grier, with Sanaa Lathan and Bill Camp

Following the world premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Native Son aired on HBO.  The film will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms. Grade: 2.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.