Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders) is angry, violent, and doomed. He and his plight succinctly capture what it means to be a child of America in artist Rashid Johnson’s updating of Richard Wright’s classic protest 1940 novel Native Son for the screen in 2019. Disturbing, powerfully discomforting, and undoubtedly messy, it’s a striking debut film that effectively brings the book’s racial and class tensions to life, but also highlights its glaring flaws when it comes to women in a story that starts strong before turning sour.
Bigger is a courier in Chicago whose mum’s new boyfriend gets him a job as a chauffeur for the Daltons, an exceedingly wealthy white family. Trying way too hard to appear ‘woke’ in Bigger’s eyes, patriarch Mr Dalton (Bill Camp) and his daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley) start to blur the lines between employee and family member (Bigger lives in the Daltons’ massive house), an error that eventually has a tragic outcome. Their upper-class white ignorance makes itself known in a variety of skin-crawling ways, from assuming Bigger’s musical tastes to not realising just how anxious their poor boundary-setting makes an employee who relies on their money and good graces to survive.
Native Son is at its best when Suzan-Lori Parks’s script explores these themes, finding friction points that feel both slight and apocalyptic at the same time, aided by an ominous score and almost horror movie-style direction, as well as a magnetic performance from Sanders. His switching of his body language throughout the film is brilliant, complemented perfectly by stunning hair and costume design. When he’s with his family or girlfriend Bessie (Kiki Layne), he’s utterly at ease, silkily moving in almost slow motion, the master of his own little patch of universe, but the way he tenses up around the Daltons is viscerally affecting.
Johnson builds and builds the tension until one unbearable evening when a collision of drugs, drink, privilege, and sexual entitlement lets this anxiety explode into horror. Whilst it is a brutally effective scene in the moment, it massively destabilises the last act. The crime itself is lingered on for too long, becoming disquieting not in its content but its exploitative presentation and the shift it induces in Bigger’s character doesn’t quite ring true and makes his company a lot less palatable. Turning sharply into something nastier also more clearly exposes the tonal flaws that pop up occasionally in the film’s first half, especially the Daltons hellish, mother!-esque furnace room and Elizabeth Marvel’s very broad performance as Mr Dalton’s blind wife.
An unnecessary voiceover and some very self-consciously ‘stylish’ shots remind you that this is absolutely a First Film, reliant on its extraordinary central performance to really work. Yet, though these problems certainly make an impression, they don’t detract from the raw and vital power of Native Son’s excoriating look at the experience of the black working class in a white world that seeks to encroach on every inch of black space while patting itself on the back for being so inclusive.