Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders gives a hauntingly dark Native Son some 21st-century texture
Adapting Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, to the big screen in the 21st-century was always going to be a monumental feat. The controversial story had already been actualized on the big screen twice—once in a 1951 film starring Wright himself, and then again in 1986 for PBS starring Oprah Winfrey. For his feature film debut, conceptual artist-turned-director Rashid Johnson thrusts Wright’s narrative into the modern day, bringing with it all of society’s failings surrounding race, class, and privilege.
Using Wright as a guide along with Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ screenplay, Johnson invites us into Bigger Thomas’ (Moonlight standout Ashton Sanders) world. Separated into three parts—Fate, Fear, and Flight—the film opens with Bigger’s voice-over. Arrogant and peculiar, Bigger is a lanky and quiet young black man. His green hair sits in sharp contrast to his shea butter-slathered dark skin. Bigger seems aloof, and he has an aura of superiority, though he still lives in his widowed mother’s (Sanaa Lathan) tiny apartment along with his younger siblings.
Set in present-day Chicago, a city that Johnson presents in all of its grandeur on screen, Bigger complains about the complacency he sees around him. Yet he seems almost offended when others suggest he spread his wings to seek something more meaningful than his job as a bike messenger. As Bigger weaves in and out of the towering skyscrapers in downtown Chicago, he stands out. Bigger desperately wants to be thoughtful and radical, but it’s clear from the film’s opening that he’s sleepwalking through life.
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