Rashid Johnson’s Contemporary Take On ‘Native Son’ Confuses More Than It Explains

HBO Films

In Native Son, the 2019 adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel directed by Rashid Johnson and written by Suzan-Lori Parks, Moonlight‘s Ashton Sanders plays Bigger Parks. In their updated version, Parks is black punk rocker with green hair and a safety pin-covered jacket, who reads Invisible Man (1952) and rocks out to Death (the ’70s black punk band rediscovered in 2012’s A Band Called Death) while working as a bike messenger. What he aspires to we’re not sure, and we don’t know much about his past beyond the fact that his dad was an accountant who died when Bigger was young.

Mostly, Big (as his friends call him) is presented as a collection of interests (Death, black literature, Bad Brains, Beethoven), and it’s hard to know quite how they all connect to each other to make a whole. That’s sort of Bigger Parks in a nutshell in this version; a multifaceted character whose facets are individually intriguing but cumulatively kind of a confusing mess.

Big, whose friends seem not to share his love of punk — which is weird, dressing punk every day with no punk friends to hang out with — gets a job with Mr. Dalton, a wealthy Chicago real estate guy played by the always great Bill Camp. Mr. Dalton is a noblesse oblige type who apparently wants to give Big a chance. Big moves into Dalton’s big house where his job mostly seems to involve shoveling coal into the house furnace twice a day (weird, but okay) and being a driver for Dalton’s college age daughter, Mary, played by the alluringly wicked Margaret Qualley. Mary likes to drink and party and hang out with her communist boyfriend, Jan (Nick Robinson), generally giving off the impression that white girls are nothing but trouble. Jan and Mary seem fascinated by Big’s exotic blackness, asking him ignorant rich white people questions like where he spends his summers and what black people “think about stuff.” It’s suitably cringey, if a slightly over-broad.

The relationship is chummy but inherently imbalanced and predatory, and feels a lot like Get Out, despite the much older source material. The story feels like it’s taking us down a somewhat well-worn road of race manners until it takes a sharp left turn into a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare that Big can’t escape. It’s the same plot point as the novel, which was always a pretty bold story point, but in the source material, it seems more symbolic, more like a kind of parable. In this version, well, the direction of the scene isn’t very convincing for one thing, and it’s hard to accept a nightmarish twist if it doesn’t track. More importantly, the story isn’t clear enough to understand its symbolic value, whatever that may be.

Wright’s novel seemed to be about inevitability, society’s expectations and inescapable fate. This updated version, perhaps thanks to one bespoke flourish too many, just feels like anomaly. Big himself is an anomalous character, a black punk rock bike messenger from Chicago who idolizes punk bands from Detroit and DC, a guy who adamantly denies caring about politics five minutes after listening to “Kill The Poor” by the Dead Kennedys. It’s hard to complain about a character who’s too unique, but it’s a lot to unpack. And then on top of that, the plot hinges on a not-entirely-believable freak accident.

It’s hard to identify and find value in actions that seem this isolated and strange. Native Son feels like it’s attempting to make a point about society, but it’s hard to do that with singularly peculiar characters in far-fetched situations. It’s a series of intriguing parts that don’t quite come together.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can find his archive of reviews here.