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Review: ‘Native Son’ – reimagining a classic, retaining the anger

Ashton Sanders in Native Son from A24/HBO (photo: Matthew Libatique)

From the very first moments of Native Son, the audience is overwhelmed by the dizzying blend of visual style and narrative intensity. Rashid Johnson, in his directorial debut, uses his career as an established postmodern artist to create a beautiful reimagining of Richard Wright’s incredible novel, bringing it into a contemporary context that serves to be a powerful and often heartwrenching portrayal of society and all its shortcomings. An intricate, gorgeous and extremely heartbreaking film about race relations, it serves to be another addition to the canon of brilliant works from iconoclastic African-American writers being portrayed on screen, and following only months after the very first film adaptation of a James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, we find ourselves almost submerged in a renaissance of adaptations of classic resistance literature that advocates change through beautiful, poetic filmmaking. We can’t deny that Native Son is one of the year’s most powerful films, with Johnson and his creative collaborators working extensively to bring Wright’s extraordinary work to modern times and moving us all along the way.

Wright’s story about a young man who goes from innocence to corruption after being employed by an affluent white family has been one that has captivated audiences since its initial publication in 1940, and Johnson’s film version is equally as compelling, right from the outset when he presents us with his own unique vision of Chicago and its inhabitants. Johnson, an established visual artist, moves the story to a contemporary context in a way that shows the unfortunate reality that what Wright wrote about decades ago is still applicable today, and the remnants of the struggle from a pre-Civil Rights Movement era still linger as uncomfortable specters of the past. The central ideas evoked by Wright were resonant at the original time of publication, and remain powerful now, and by using Wright’s beautiful but harrowing story and combining it with his own unique artistic vision, Johnson effectively manages to portray the world we live in, and the social injustices many have to go through.

Native Son extends further than just a straightforward adaptation of its source material. Wright’s work, while undeniably beautiful, was also difficult, not because of his prose (very few authors have as compelling a style as Wright), but because of how raw and brutal his stories tend to be, unflinching in their commitment to representing the plight of those who could never speak for themselves. Native Son is a harrowing but beautiful novel that makes a profound impact, and Johnson translates this effectively to the screen, retaining every bit of rage and despair that Wright evoked. This source material works towards Johnson’s sensibilities as a visual artist, because while Wright’s stories were certainly beautiful, he is most known for his meditative style that focused mostly on themes and underlying messages rather than plot, with his words weaving together into a tapestry of the time in which they were written. Very often, this film ruminates on a concept rather than a being strictly driven by plot, and it creates a fascinating and complex image of contemporary society, as well as portraying the social anger and anxiety that pervades the era. In making this film, Johnson seems to be combining the kitchen-sink grittiness of great cinematic realists like Alan Clarke and his soaring odes to youthful rebellion, and the poignant, palpable anger produced in the time of great social despair by disenfranchised artists such as Wright, who used their pens as weapons against institutionalized oppression.

Bigger Thomas is one of the more complex literary creations of his time, having two conflicting sides: the more genial, quiet and likeable public persona, and the far more rebellious, angry and defiant youth he keeps hidden from most of the world. Ashton Sanders brings the necessary level of intensity to the role, playing a character who is fighting hard against a system that tries to label him as a particular kind of person. He conveys every emotional moment with finesse and a dynamic might, and whether in scenes of internalized struggled (accompanied by hauntingly beautiful narration), or in outward anger to the world around him, Sanders is brilliant, finding the right balance between the many sides of the character. Johnson deftly combines different cultural elements – punk music, classic and contemporary literature and blaxploitation cinema – in weaving together a complex portrait of a troubled young man struggling against perceptions that perceive him in one way, where he has to rebel against not only institutionalized oppression, but also stereotypes that may be innocuous on the surface, but can be detrimental to one’s identity. The great tragedy at the core of Native Son is that Bigger tries so hard to defy expectations, he eventually comes to exemplify those very expectations, even if only from the outsider’s perspective. Native Son is a vital American novel – it presents us with a horrifying but unfortunately truthful version of history, showing us a form of social structure that is rarely portrayed with such honesty. There is certainly a reason why the works of Richard Wright have become pivotal pieces of artistic expression. Rashid Johnson challenged himself to adapting this incredible novel into a film, and the result is exceptional. This is a film that has a great deal of force in how it portrays its central message, and it can stir considerable thought and start discussions. It is, for this reason alone, an essential film, one that conveys a vital message that needs to be considered by all. A truly brilliant film, one that may leave the viewer shaken, but also profoundly moved by the raw, emotional complexities of this astonishing work.

About Matthew Jenner

Matthew Joseph Jenner is an avid part-time writer and full-time film obsessed millennial who has been following awards shows since he was in elementary school, waking up at ungodly hours of the morning to watch the live broadcast of the Academy Awards, never looking back since. If it has celebrities handing out shiny trophies, you know he's watching. Other film-related interests include cult cinema, independent filmmaking and reviving the careers of long-irrelevant actors, rebranding them as Beloved Veterans™. He has been writing for his review site Movies Unchained since 2012.

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