Going into a film completely blind, without a trailer to hint at tone or story, is undoubtedly the best way to experience a film for the first time. For someone like me, who is frequently inundated with film news and media, that can be fairly difficult. Thankfully, attending the Sundance Film Festival offers the opportunity to see films at their world premiere, with merely a synopsis, cast and crew list, and image to tantalize your interest. Sitting down for my first film of the festival, Native Son, an overwhelming excitement washed over me, knowing that I was in a crowd of people who are all seeing this film for the first time. There’s no feeling quite like it for a cinephile like myself.
A modern cinematic retelling of Robert Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son stars Ashton Sanders as Bigger Thomas, a young African-American struggling to find his path in life while living with his family in Chicago. He has trouble showing much interest in his girlfriend, Bessie (Kiki Layne), while his friends unsuccessfully try to convince him to partake in a robbery. It isn’t until his mother and stepdad (Sanaa Lathan and David Alan Grier) recommend applying for a job as a driver for a wealthy businessman, Henry Dalton (Bill Camp), and his family that Bigger starts moving down a path. However, this path takes an unexpected turn as he spends more time with Henry’s daughter and (unbeknownst to Henry) her fiancé (Margaret Qualley and Nick Robinson), and Bigger must grapple with the consequences.
In the Q&A after the film, screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks and first-time director Rashid Johnson talked about their hopes for the film, saying they want it to be a way to open up discussions about issues of race and class. The first half of the film touches upon a lot of these issues in very direct ways, sometimes at the expense of plot. We get a sense of Bigger’s lifestyle with his friends and girlfriend, which ultimately shifts once he gets hired by the Daltons. The most interesting dynamic of the first half of the story is Bigger’s struggle to fit into any sort of socio-cultural stereotype. Bigger has friends that are lower-class and have to resort to robbery to make a better life for themselves, but Bigger also enjoys going to the symphony with his wealthy white employers. He is a fascinating character that indeed serves as a window to exploring these racial and class issues that the writer and director are interested in discussing; Ashton Sanders also does a phenomenal job in subtly playing Bigger’s internal struggle.
I also appreciate how Parks and Johnson do not paint the Daltons, or any character for that matter, in broad strokes. Henry’s daughter, Mary, describers her father as a wealthy capitalist who has trouble understanding the struggles of the lower class, yet Henry shows a particular warmth towards Bigger that may say otherwise. Meanwhile, Mary and her fiancé secretly hold meetings to discuss issues of minorities and the lower class, yet they also hold a certain naivete in how they go about wanting to change things. In general, all the characters feel like real people, and I think this helps in telling a story that is so politically charged.
Then, the turning point happens. A specific character decision occurs about halfway through the film that is an extreme left-turn, both narratively and character-wise. What follows after this turning point makes sense for the story and further blurs the line, thematically. But the actual turning point itself proves troublesome, so much so that the whiplash I received from the shocking moment negatively affected my level of engagement in what follows. After the film ended, I could never fully see Native Son as an entire whole, when the drastic shift in tone and character practically cuts the film into two disparate stories.
Native Son is definitely a film that I can appreciate and admire for the ways in which it encourages discussions about race and class. Its complex, human characters feel lived-in and real, which is a big component in making the thematic nature of the film more accessible. However, due to my waning engagement in the story after such a jarring turning point, I can say that I appreciate the film more than I actually like it as a whole. And still, Rashid Johnson shows lots of promise as a filmmaker, and I want to see where he goes next. Ultimately, his impressive, flawed debut is worth seeing for its complex themes; if anything, I am certain that this is a film that people will want to talk about. And what is film, if not a medium to incite discussion?