I feel it’s worth noting before I begin the review of HBO’s “Native Son” that I’ve never read the epic novel by Richard Wright. For some that might exclude me from offering critique at all. But if that’s the case, fault my high school English track. I was in a section that required us to read Raisin in the Sun while others read Native Son.
It’s hard to not view this movie in the shadow of “If Beale Street Could Talk” not because of actress Kiki Lane playing similar characters in both, but more so because mainstream film companies have decided to adapt stories from an African American literature canon. For starters, its refreshing to realize that the Obama-effect of black cultural productions is still continuing; knowing that movies like “Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight” and “Fences” were not anomalies is worth celebrating. However, lifting adaptions of historic stories and revamping them in a modern context are usually a big hill to climb. Director Rashid Johnson’s version of “Native Son” was not an exception.
I entered the movie with a pretty big blank slate about what even the basic plot of the story was. But what I did know was that the story was set in Chicago. As a Chicago native, I looked forward to see how the story chose to overlay a modern-day Chicago with a Depression-era Chicago of Bigger Thomas’ day. Presumably, anyone with a cursory knowledge of the story line would be looking for the same. Instead, the city of Cleveland, Ohio functioned as a stand in for Chicago. Given the treatment of urban life being such a central locus in the lives of regular, everyday black folks, it seemed like an opportunity lost for a production that appeared to have enough budget to do what they wanted.
Bigger Thomas was played by Ashton Sanders. Sanders is clearly an actor who’s star still seems to be ascending after his critically acclaimed role in “Moonlight” as Chiron at age 16. He delivered every line given to him with a skill that gave life to a character maybe many had never heard of or only remotely had a clue about. Every synopsis or literary critique of Bigger Thomas’ character in Wright’s novel lets you know that the character operated in a larger-than-life function outside of the creation of Wright’s antihero. That is to say, Sanders was expected to be the third Bigger in a remake of two movies that have been filed in the dustbin of Hollywood forgetfulness; to play a character reserved for a book that lives on in infamy. I am happy to report that Sanders rises to the occasion.
The movie, for the most part will live in the cinematic and artistic shadow of “If Beale Street Could Talk” because it tried to update a story that screamed to be kept in its historical location. While updating Bigger’s character to being a black punk rocker—black fingernail polish, punk rock bands was his preferred music of choice and his signature green hair—might have seemed like a good idea at the time, it played out as jarringly out of place to the rest of the character tableaus. His mother’s character (Sanaa Lathan) seemed regular, even the cameo appearance of a suitor (David Alan Grier) seemed par for the course. The white characters, the Daltons, seemed like fill-in-the-blank operatives to tell a familiar old story about race relations in America. For an original story written in Wright’s 1939 Chicago, the commentary on race relations was not missed. However, in an era of #MeToo and Black Lives Matters, the story seems tired. Rather than requiring a repeat of the same song we’ve heard told since the inception of this nation, the movie should have been a coda to the long saga.
There was never a sympathetic moment in the story, for me, towards Bigger. His “accidental” murder of Mary, the Dalton’s daughter, didn’t seem borne of any crucible of racial strife or poverty, but rather that of simply bad decision making that led, finally, to an irreversible one. By all accounts, Wright’s original motives for Mary’s death and the rape and death of Bessie (a part excised from all three “Native Son” films) at the hands of Bigger, was the grinding poverty and racial climate that shaped and formed him. In the novel, Bigger was living in a one-room coldwater flat on the South Side of Chicago. In 2019, Bigger was living in a multi-room apartment in a nameless somewhere-ville-‘hood Chicago. While the class difference was still relatively stark, there was a way in which the lives of the other half appeared to be more accessible in 2019 in a way that I can only imagine wasn’t nearly as accessible in 1939.
Perhaps I was too distracted with the movie still using names like “Bigger” and “Bessie” or “Jan” and “Gus” in the year 2019 to appreciate the actual story that it was telling. But to be honest, even after pondering the movie, reading reviews, and grasping the synopsis of the book, I’m still not sure what the aim of the film was. It felt as though some of the epic nature that the book holds in the American imagination was lost as the movie unfolded. In the way that after watching “If Beale Street Could Talk” and the intentional un-conclusion, of Tish and Fonny sitting in a prison day room, it was clear that the film was a tranche de vie noir whereas some times black life is just a regular story or love and pain, joy and tragedy. “Native Son” was not this. It didn’t seem to set out to just tell a story, but rather sell an angle on poverty, race, privilege and maybe some deeper musings on intracultural identity amongst blacks. Unfortunately, the film never achieved an altitude high enough to accomplish much of anything.
Knowing that the rape and death of Bessie at the hands of Bigger was a major and intentional omission of this 2019 version makes the character and demise of Mary Dalton almost cheap. This particular plot device relies on the age old story of black men dying at the hands white female seduction or false claims of sexual assault. It’s the same device the leverages the entire book and film of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and it’s the real-life story of why race riots happened in the early 20th century and why Emmett Till’s body was found tied to a cotton gin mill fan at the bottom of the Tallahatchie river in 1955. The reason it’s a cheap plot device in 2019 is because the exploration of black pain has not seemed to move the needle much. Perhaps rather than curating a story that explores the reasons why a character like Bigger found himself to be a murderer, it’s worth exploring the souls of white folks. Perhaps the cultural and social motivations of the Mary Daltons of the world—exploring ontological whiteness such as it is—is the order of the day.
The ending of the movie, oddly enough, made sense. It seemed like a logical conclusion; it struck the right cultural note. It’s in agreement with the original text metaphorically even if not literally.
Overall, the movie seems to fall into the same stereotypical pitfalls that James Baldwin alleged in Notes from a Native Son. Except for Bigger, each character was merely functional. Two-dimensional planetary figures orbiting around a Bigger sun in the middle. If Bigger was the large star in the center, the city of Chicago should have been the gravitational force holding the characters in orbit. But Chicago, as a character itself, was notably absent allowing the flattened characters to drift off into forgetfulness. One of the original plot devices from the book around real estate—the Daltons happened to be the landlord of the rat infested tenement Bigger’s family lived—would have resonated given the cultural and geographic creep of gentrification in urban centers. But, somehow, no one in the line of this movie, from inception to production, ever thought that that would have been a worthy insertion. Pity.
It’s not so much that I had more questions than answers at the end, it’s that I didn’t have any questions at all. For a book and storyline so polarizing that it finds itself on the top most challenged books of the American Library Association, the latest film adaptation didn’t give credence as to why. And that, perhaps, is the biggest failure of the movie. The depressing ending plus the failure of black love leaves a sad taste in your mouth at the film’s conclusion. Given that none of the actors except Sanders delivered anything noteworthy, it’s a movie that makes you almost wonder why was it made in the first place. Culturally, I agree, the story should be updated for a newer generation, but it’s sad that there wasn’t a better treatment of an age old American story: that this nation cares little if anything about its true native sons.