Two strong stars enhance a ‘Native Son’ updated for now
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“Early morning. Got the whole world to myself. I don’t need no alarm clock to wake me up.” — Bigger Thomas, looking out his South Side window at the outset of “Native Son.”
Then again, not all wake-up calls emanate from alarm clocks.
Set on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s and published in 1940, Richard Wright’s seminal and groundbreaking (and hugely popular) novel “Native Son” addressed rarely explored racial, cultural and economic divides through the experiences of one Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old black man who is hired by a wealthy white family and enters an overwhelmingly foreign world.
Even though Bigger’s family and the affluent Daltons live maybe a dozen blocks from one another on the South Side, they might as well be from different planets.
Planets on a collision course.
Filmed in Chicago and updated to a present-day setting, the HBO movie “Native Son” follows the basic framework of Wright’s novel and features the same main characters — but as is the case with just about any adaptation of a literary work, shortcuts are taken and certain key plot developments are altered, or eliminated.
Not always to the benefit of the dramatic impact of the story.
But even when “Native Son” loses its narrative footing, there’s never a moment when Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) as Bigger and KiKi Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk,”) as Bigger’s girlfriend Bessie, are anything less than electric.
Sanders and Layne should become major stars.
As the story opens, we meet 20-year-old Bigger, who is sporting green hair and lots of jewelry, wears a leather jacket with spray-paint graffiti, and has a gun resting atop a copy of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” in his bedroom.
He’s bright. He’s ambitious. But he might not be traveling the best path to ensure a long and productive future.
Bigger lives with his mom (Sanaa Lathan) and his two little sisters and is working as a bicycle messenger, but he has larger goals.
Bigger’s got stuff going on, he assures us in voice-over narration. He’s going to make a move. But he’s not going to be stupid about it. When there’s talk among his friends about pulling a heist, Bigger says, “Sorry, I’m not interested in being part of some least common denominator stereotypical Negro s—.”
Director Rashid Johnson, an accomplished visual artist from Chicago making his feature directorial debut, conveys Bigger’s point of view with some engrossing touches, e.g., a time-lapse sequence in which Bigger stands in front of the Bean and talks about how everyone just scurries about like rats.
Bigger wants to rise above the noise. He’s just not sure how he’ll do it.
And that’s just about the time Bigger is given the opportunity to work as a live-in chauffeur for the Dalton family, who live in a mansion roughly the size of a country club.
Family patriarch Will Dalton (Bill Camp) is so self-consciously “woke,” what with the African-American art in virtually every room and the glib liberal talk, and yet so transparently racist, he could be a Chicago-area cousin to Bradley Whitford’s character in “Get Out.”
Will says he HAS to do a criminal background check (“Clean record?”) because his security guy insists on it. He also expresses relief when he learns Bigger wasn’t named after Biggie Smalls.
Then there’s the matter of Will’s daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley), who clearly enjoys antagonizing her father, which might explain why she’s dating Nick Robinson’s Jan, an ultra-liberal from Berkeley who makes disparaging remarks about “one-percenters” even as he enjoys the perks of dating a rich girl — including the black chauffeur driving them around.
“Can I touch your hair?” Mary says to Bigger the first time he drives her. “Just kidding.”
Yeah, but really?
Bigger is so smart and at times sees things with such clarity, but time and again, he makes the wrong decision, acts on the wrong impulse, refuses to listen to voices of reason. (On two separate occasions, he’s dismissive of older black men who try to provide fatherly guidance.)
At times “Native Son” forfeits subtlety for message-delivering, e.g., Mrs. Dalton is blind, and at Bigger says in voice-over, “They’re blind. Both of them. All of them. They’re blind.”
Still, thanks in great part to the staying power of the source material, and the blistering work by Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne, “Native Son” leaves a lasting imprint.
HBO Films presents a film directed by Rashid Johnson and written by Suzan-Lori Parks, based on the novel by Richard Wright. Rated TV-MA. Running time: 104 minutes. Premiering at 9 p.m. Saturday on HBO and available then on HBO Go, HBO Now and other platforms.