An Arty but Superficial Take on Native Son

Richard Wright’s heavy-handed 1940 novel gets a stylish, disappointingly slight cinematic revamp.

Matthew Libatique / HBO

This article contains spoilers for Native Son.

Just over a year after the author Richard Wright published his first novel, Native Son, in March 1940, the text was adapted for the first time. In March 1941, Wright and the playwright Paul Green staged a contentious, Orson Welles–directed production at New York’s St. James Theatre. Ten years later, Wright played his own protagonist in an unfortunate Argentinian film adaptation, Sangre negra (“black blood”). By 2014, there had been yet another Native Son film and two more plays.

It might seem, then, that Wright’s novel is the kind of story that lends itself easily—or at least fruitfully—to visual renderings. But as source material, it’s grisly and heavy-handed, a tale that originally was met with either horror or adulation. Native Son follows Bigger Thomas, a poor black man living in Chicago during the Great Depression. Bigger is hired as a chauffeur by Mr. Dalton, a wealthy white man whose daughter, Mary, soon takes an interest in the young black man. In the novel’s climactic event, Bigger accidentally suffocates Mary one night after helping the drunken girl to her room and fearing her blind mother would sense his presence if she heard Mary’s lustful banter. Realizing he’s killed her, Bigger frantically carries Mary’s body to the Dalton family’s furnace, then decapitates her corpse so it will fit inside. The point, Wright insists throughout the text, is that Bigger was conditioned to become a criminal by a country that viewed all black men as savages. His violence was an inevitability.

A new HBO adaptation from the director Rashid Johnson and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks now joins its predecessors. The film thankfully dispenses with some of the novel’s most graphic elements and moves its protagonist out of the 1930s and into contemporary Chicago. This Bigger, who more often goes by Big, is played by a graceful and dynamic Ashton Sanders (Moonlight). He skulks about the screen, and the South Side, in green hair and punkish attire: black high-water pants, black nail polish, a black leather jacket with OR AM I FREAKING OUT spray-painted across the back. Big’s got a lot of style.

The same could be said for the film itself. The HBO production’s strongest points are the diversions from Wright’s original text, many of them indications that Johnson and Parks took to their source material with an eye toward James Baldwin’s salient critiques of Wright. Even moving the central violent act to the back half of the film creates a welcome spaciousness in the narrative. But, too often, Johnson’s stylistic choices make for a jazzy and unnerving film that prioritizes legibly black aesthetics over the development of black characters. Johnson, a prominent conceptual artist, imbues the film with an artfulness that feels intentional, but nonetheless unfocused. The pairing of his indulgent aestheticism with Parks’s overly poetic writing gives Native Son the feel of a graduate-school project: at times quite visually stunning, but with tonal incongruities that make for a disjointed viewing experience.

In one early scene, for example, Big bikes over to a parking lot to pick up weed from his friend Gus (Jerod Haynes). The first shot inside Gus’s car prominently features only two items: a green vape pen in Gus’s hand and an Africa-shaped pendant dangling from his rear-view mirror. It’s all very on the nose. You can practically see subtitles: A drug exchange is about to happen between two black men, but don’t worry, they’re also deep brothers.

At best, these kinds of choices are distracting. The conversation that follows between the two men is a revelatory one. Gus tells Big the two should work together, and Big demurs. He notes that he—like many other young black men—doesn’t have many job prospects, but he does want to resist the drug trade. The scene’s also got a touch of friendly humor; Gus asks Big whether he wants anything other than weed, laughing as he says, “Shit, I got E … F, G, H, I, the alphabet in this motherfucker.”

Moments such as this one might have served to sketch out a vision of who Big is beyond what the world expects him to be. But Native Son breezes past opportunities to deepen Big’s character far enough beyond Wright’s original writing to justify a 2019 adaptation. The film gestures at Big’s internal motivations, but doesn’t bear them out. Instead, we see him visibly uncomfortable in a soul-food joint with Mary (Margaret Qualley) and her white Communist boyfriend, Jan (Nick Robinson). We get classical-music interludes and shots of books, including Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in Big’s room. (In the shot that features the Ellison book, Big places a gun on it.) We see him admire the Daltons’ library, and the camera lingers for a moment on the volumes—among them, John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, and, naturally, Richard Wright’s Native Son. These signifiers function primarily as shortcuts for suggesting that Bigger is a different sort of black man without offering any context for why the norm itself exists.

But, like Wright’s book itself, relying on visual cues associated with whiteness to point to a troubled black character’s ostensibly complex interiority is a lazy rehashing of racial stereotypes. It’s true that racist tropes about young black men characterize them as innately criminal, and that they are over-surveilled and underemployed because of pernicious and systematic racial discrimination. But Johnson and Parks’s film doesn’t bridge the gap between these conditions and the putative inevitability of Big’s crimes. Hagiographic shots alone—such as the one in which Big faces the camera in front of Chicago’s glassy Cloud Gate public sculpture, while a time-lapsed stream of people flows around him—don’t shed light on his needs or motivations.

Big (Ashton Sanders) in front of Chicago’s “Bean” sculpture, in one of the film’s many stylish shots (Matthew Libatique / HBO)

Nowhere is the dissonance between Johnson’s experimental stylistic choices and the grave subject matter more notable than in the film’s final moments, when Big dies at the hands of the police. After killing Mary, Big hides from law enforcement with his girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), in a warehouse-like structure. The two fight, and she runs away when he becomes physical with her. (It was, frankly, a relief that the film cut the novel’s rape scene, but Bessie gets more hairstyles than she does interiority.) After Bessie flees, the camera follows Big as he returns to the empty top floor of the building while jarringly hymnlike music plays. The cops close in on him as near-blinding light shines in through the windows. The music picks up, and Big dies in a symphony of jazz.

The scene is neither heartbreaking nor particularly revelatory, but painful to watch nonetheless. In this, Native Son’s ending reveals the film’s biggest disappointment: Together, Parks and Johnson might be able to make a thrilling, gorgeous movie. Native Son isn’t it.