The only thing worse than being blind is having vision, but no sight. Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders), lives in extreme poverty with his family in Chicago. He’s a courier by day, and a city boy by night. Bigger is extremely self-aware of his blackness and is frustrated by it. Not because he hates being black, but for what being black represents: An exhausting fight against a systemic enemy he—nor his people—may never win.
Nevertheless, Bigger does his best to play the game, and ends up scoring a position with the wealthy Caucasian businessman Mr. Dalton (Bill Camp) of chauffeur. He’ll receive room and board for being the driver of Mr. Dalton, his daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), and wife (Elizabeth Marvel). Once exposed to the wealthy and the day-to-day changes, Bigger understands more, and subsequently, opens the door to Pandora’s box.
Does The Night Of conjure any memories? HBO’s brilliant 2016 miniseries adapted from a British production shares some parallels with the HBO-released Native Son. Thematically, they both delve into race (on varying levels) as well as the overall injustices and root issues/inadequacies America has in its justice system. The Night Of worked so well because it took a methodically measured approach to its tale, fleshing out many characters and their motivations in the process. One can’t help but wonder if Native Son would have seen the same success, or at least a modicum of it, if a similar formula was taken.
What is Native Son? One of yours truly’s favorite books of all time, easily in my top 5. Written by author Richard Wright in 1940, the novel details a fatalistic tale of an African-American young man who certainly isn’t blameless in the misfortunes of his life, but more powerless in controlling his destiny than the outside might believe, in the eyes of Wright, at least. The merits of the book are debated to this day, but one thing that most agree on as a positive is Wright’s painting of a bleak and gritty existence, laid out in the three book chapters of Fear, Flight, and Fate.
Taking the author’s work and updating it is first-time feature director Rashid Johnson, known predominately for his dynamic Afrocentric art. With time, perhaps he can be the next Tom Ford, that is, an artist in one arena that picks up directing and does a few well-received movies here and there. Visually, Johnson does make some of the more unforgettable book moments come to life, including the point of no return moment. And, it’s probably for the best that the 1930’s are discarded for the present day, as a good chunk of Native Son is still relevant today.
But this adaptation stumbles in its pacing, ultimately diluting its power. For context, it takes roughly 70-80 minutes out of an hour-and forty-minute feature for the “infamous” incident to take place, leaving a half-hour or so to rush through a 2nd and 3rd act. There’s no hard and fast rule that the content must be adapted on a 1:1 ratio. Yet, there’s so much additional depth these characters possess and themes this story has that are either only hinted at or ignored. It’s that unrealized depth and themes that kind of wastes good acting work from the cast; particularly Sanders, Camp, and Kiki Layne. Tweaks, changes, or otherwise, with a miniseries/Netflix-esque layout, there would have been the opening to take some time and establish those components. A build would have done wonders for this.
Maybe one day, we’ll finally get a resonant version of Wright’s novel. After three swings and misses at spinning Native Son into a movie, I hope the fourth attempt tries a different medium.
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