Brandon Shillingford, Contributing Writer
“I don’t want to know anything about your system of ethics. The strength is of the morality of the man who stands out from the rest, and it is mine.”
When 20-year-old Bigger Thomas speaks these words through harrowing narration toward the end of the second act of “Native Son,” it’s difficult to assign meaning to them. But as the film progresses, the purpose of that dialogue becomes painfully apparent.
“Native Son” is an adaptation of Richard Wright’s infamous and incredibly influential 1940 novel. It stars Ashton Sanders from “Moonlight” as Bigger, a young black man thrust into the upper echelons of society after taking a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family
It’s also the directorial debut of conceptual artist, Rashid Johnson, whose sculpture “Monument” is featured at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, and his background in art is apparent in this feature. This film has creative cinematography, innovative lighting and unique costume design. Johnson’s visual masterpiece proves his spectacular eye for color, space and shot composition.
It also crafts its own incredibly singular sense of atmosphere and tone. Its cinematography and ethereal score put the viewer on edge, creating tension that grips the viewer and doesn’t let go until the closing moments.
Technically, “Native Son” passes with flying colors. It falters, however, in its adaptation of the controversial source material. While the novel would absolutely be considered problematic due its depictions of African Americans and of sexual assault, much of its power comes from seeing Bigger’s descent into desperation and how his increasingly horrific actions cause him to examine himself and the world around him.
“Native Son” tries to cut much of this out, which is undoubtedly the right decision for the adaptation, but it loses its powerful impact in the process. After much of the original material is removed, the film is left with empty narration and half-baked themes.
Its strange pacing does itself no favors — the first act particularly drags on. There’s a sense the filmmakers didn’t care much about setting up the climax.
However, one of the themes that carries over very well from the novel is identity and what being black really means. In both the book and the film, Bigger doesn’t have much of a personality. He’s used as a blank slate for not only viewers to cast their generalizations of black men onto, but the characters as well.
In the book, Wright paints Bigger as a victim of circumstance, attributing his appalling crimes to his environment and the way he and other black people are treated.
White and black characters alike try to box Bigger into a category, asking him if he likes things like rap or basketball and saying he isn’t really “black.” But, as said by his girlfriend Bessie — played by Kiki Layne of “If Beale Street Could Talk” — “When they made Big, they broke the mold.”
Bigger defies many traditional stereotypes placed on black men, but a huge part of why this comes through so effectively in the film is Sanders’ performance.
Sanders is a rising actor I’ve been watching closely since his performance in “Moonlight” as teenage Chiron. In “Native Son,” he gets his first opportunity as a leading man and doesn’t take it to chance. Sanders has an incredibly commanding screen presence, moving from surprising sensitivity to shocking displays of rage and cruelty in mere seconds.
While “Native Son” is at times narratively disjointed and doesn’t hit all of its thematic targets, it’s exceedingly ambitious and an absolute visual marvel. It operates as a powerful calling card for its transcendent leading man.
“Native Son” is ultimately a challenging and undeniably thought-provoking work of cinema that any fan of the book, or of film, should see.