Sundance 2019: “Native Son” Review
Native Son by Richard Wright has been a classic novel for years and have graced school reading lists for years. First-time filmmaker, Rashid Johnson along with writer Suzan-Lori Parks have brought Native Son into the modern day and a whole new generation. Native Son tells the heartbreaking story of Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders) as his life is evolving and changing from the experience he knows to something new. Happy with his life in his neighborhood with his girlfriend Bessie (KiKi Layne), he is hesitant to take a chauffeur position with a wealthy family, the Daltons. Despite his clear outsider appearance with green hair and punk rock clothes, Mr. Dalton (Bill Camp) hires him to help drive around his family, including his daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley). As he gets closer and closer to Mary, the audience feels the tension building to something big. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the film, I won’t spoil the story for anyone but needless to say, it goes places you don’t even imagine.
With the basis of an incredible piece of literature, Suzan-Lori Parks has created a film that has seamlessly woven the story from Wright into a movie that is both modern and essential for our period. It manages to unapologetically bring a conversation about racism to the forefront in a way that fosters positive dialogue and discussion. She uses voiceovers to insert some of the most prolific parts of the film. The artistic direction that Rashid Johnson took with this film feels incredibly fresh and makes the film stand out. From the beginning scenes of Big riding a bike through town to the musical choices showcasing that Big doesn’t seem to fit anywhere in particular, really make this film incredible. Johnson’s vision is deliberate and spot on, making the best choices a director can make, especially a first time director.
The crux of the film relies on the performance by Ashton Sanders. His charismatic and nuanced performance provides precisely the right portrayal of the duality Big faces in his day to day life. Each scene he is in only gets better than the last. He carries this character with such ease and honesty, making Big genuinely come to life. The supporting characters are equally spectacular, particularly KiKi Layne as Bessie. At first, her role seems superficial, but as we get to know her, we see her character develop into something so much more, culminating in a phenomenal scene near the end of the film. Sanders’ and her chemistry in the scene is electrifying.
Native Son is honest and authentic and starts a dialogue that reminds us that the topics Wright touched upon in his novel are still very much alive. Despite this premiering quite early in the festival, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this film mentioned this time next year as we approach the end of awards season. Rashid Johnson comes of out the gate strong as first time director. Native Son is breathtaking with a standout performance by Ashton Sanders. The beautifully crafted adaptation officially kicks off Sundance in a big way.