In the opening minutes of Native Son, a young black man named Bigger (Ashton Sanders) is getting ready to meet the day; he checks his hair, picks out a shirt, and pulls a pistol out of his dresser drawer, setting it carefully on top of copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
It’s a telling nod to another classic work of 20th-century African-American literature, but it’s Richard Wright’s canonized 1940 novel of the title that’s the inspiration, of course. And that gun, as the movie unfolds, is not the weapon we need to worry about.
In first-time director Rashid Johnson’s raw, lyrical retelling, Bigger becomes a circa-2019 punk-rock Chicago kid with a beanie and bottle-green hair — a skinny post-adolescent with liquid brown eyes who listens to Beethoven and Bad Brains and feeds the stray cats in his apartment building with a carton of milk purloined from his mother’s (Sanaa Lathan) fridge.
His routine is mostly unhurried; he has some kind of part-time messenger job, but that seems to leave him all kinds of of time to visit his girlfriend, Bessie (If Beale Street Could Talk’s Kiki Layne) at her hair salon job and hang out at the local pool hall. He picks up weed, wanders leisurely through a record store, sneaks into the movies with his friends.
But one evening his mother’s boyfriend (David Alan Grier) has a job offer for him: A wealthy white family called the Daltons are looking for a new driver, a position that comes with room and board and $1,000 a week.
The Daltons also have a daughter roughly his age, Mary (Margaret Qualley), who immediately wants to know his politics; he’s outraged by everything that’s happening the world, isn’t he? (When the family patriarch, played by Bill Camp, solemnly tells Big, “We are staunch supporters of the NAACP,” it feels like the movie’s reciprocal wink to Get Out’s “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could.”)
Mary and her boyfriend, Jan (Love Simon’s Nick Robinson) are eager to fold Big into their world — or more accurately, to take an adventure-tourism ride through his: the soul-food restaurants and smoky house parties where they can bask in the proxy cool of his ethnicity and buy all the drugs they’ve never tried before.
When a night out goes horribly wrong, Johnson begins to cleave away from Wright’s narrative, in ways that both do and don’t serve the story. His past as a visual artist is apparent in the way he frames his impressionistic scenes: speeding them up or slowing them down, letting the soundtrack surge and recede like its own agitated character.
His and screenwriter Suzi-Lori Parks’ choices for Big are gentler in many ways than Wright’s were, and more forgiving. But it’s still a deeply unsettling story: a cautionary tale about race and justice and personal responsibility that also bows to the sheer cruel indifference of fate.
Sanders has an elusive, almost quicksilver presence; sometimes he’s little boy, gentle and funny and kind; sometimes a grown man with nothing behind his eyes but rage or hard blankness. His movements between those two personas don’t always track, and certain motives remain obtuse to the end. But the final shot is devastating: a whole human life brought down to one awful, inevitable pinpoint. B
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Native Son (2019 movie)