Native Son review – Ashton Sanders dominates darkly compelling adaptation | Film

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Arriving like a thunderstorm over this year’s Sundance film festival, the artist Rashid Johnson’s darkly compelling contemporary update of Native Son is a hard-boiled conversation starter. It’s a fiery, flawed, often stunningly made film that provokes uncomfortable discussion, rather like the Richard Wright novel it was based on, although purists might argue over some key changes. Its difficult nature might explain why, as the festival began, the indie mini-studio A24 sold the rights to HBO films, who also picked up the sexual abuse drama The Tale from last year’s Sundance – another film deemed to be too tough of a sell for many cinemagoers.

Its route straight to the small screen is something of a loss since Johnson, in his film-making debut and working with the acclaimed cinematographer Matthew Libatique, has crafted a visually confident and distinctive film that carries a singular aesthetic which, despite his background in conceptual art, remains unfussy and avoids feeling over-stylised. Together with the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, they’ve taken Wright’s controversial 1940 text and placed it in present-day Chicago. It’s the story of Big (played by Ashton Sanders, best known for avoiding being called Little in Moonlight), a young black man buckling under the weight of the expectations and assumptions of those around him. He’s filled with ideas and ambition, determined not to fall into a path of criminality despite being urged to do otherwise by friends.

He’s offered employment by a rich white family as their driver, a job that comes with considerable perks and leads Big to spend time with their wayward daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley). Desperate to show Big how woke she is, Mary tries to integrate him into her life with tragic, horrifying results.

As the film’s noirish, punk-inspired antihero, Sanders dominates the film, populating every scene and tasked with maneuvering Big through challenging territory, whether it be facing regular, galling micro-aggressions or dealing with the fallout from the film’s central act of brutality. He contorts his slender physicality into a commanding swagger and while some might find his work a tad too mannered, I found him transfixing. As he spends time around Mary and her champagne-socialist boyfriend, he’s constantly aware of how he must perform in order to keep his job, even if performing requires simply not reacting to their many ill-informed attempts to identify with him. “Aren’t you outraged?” Mary says at one point, unaware that outrage isn’t something Big is allowed to express.

It’s the film’s middle section, after Big gets the job, that truly flies, an acutely observed chain of events tied together by a prickly uneasiness that becomes almost overwhelming, a foreboding cloud threatening to explode at any minute. Mary’s a beguiling, dangerous symbol of white privilege and as Big spends more time around her, even those who aren’t familiar with the source text will know something terrible is about to happen. When it does, it punches a hole right through the screen. There were groans and a few walkouts here at Sundance but Johnson avoids grisly exploitation, knowing that the sheer mechanics of the plot will prove shocking enough. By the final act, though, some of the air has been sucked out. There are substantive changes to Big’s journey on the page that will probably cause ire among fans of the book and the last sequence in particular feels disjointed and declawed. As Big’s girlfriend, the If Beale Street Could Talk breakout star Kiki Layne is excellent but their relationship, which later takes prominence, doesn’t captivate quite enough.

While as a feature debut, Native Son is an inarguable accomplishment, both thematically and visually, it also lacks some connectivity between dramatic events. Big’s family appear briefly and are then ignored until the ending while the family he works for are left a few scenes short in the third act. But its flaws are easy to forgive as Johnson conjures up such an intoxicating atmosphere that both his imagery and Sanders’ spellbinding performance will haunt you regardless.

Source: The Guardian
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