Based on the novel by Richard Nathaniel Wright, Native Son is the story of a young African-American man who takes a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white businessman in Chicago where things don’t go well as it seems. Directed by Rashid Johnson and screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, the film is an exploration of a young man who is given a major opportunity only to find himself in serious trouble as the story is set to modern times since the book and previous adaptations took place during the 1940s. Starring Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, KiKi Layne, Bill Camp, David Alan Grier, and Sanaa Lathan. Native Son is a compelling and haunting film from Rashid Johnson.
The film follows a young African-American man who lives in the working class area of Chicago as he’s given the chance to take a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white businessman only to deal with his wild daughter. It’s a film with a simple premise that does play into a young man given an opportunity that will help financially as well as socially though he is an anomaly of sorts as he prefers to listen 70s/80s punk rock and classical music than hip-hop. Suzan-Lori Parks’ screenplay is largely straightforward as it is told largely from the perspective of its protagonist Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders) who lives with his family in the streets of Chicago as it include two young siblings and his mother Trudy (Sanaa Lathan).
While Bigger has a girlfriend in Bessie (KiKi Layne), he is often pressured to take part in things some of his friends do that often involve criminal activities as this opportunity to be a chauffeur for the wealthy businessman Henry Dalton (Bill Camp) as he’s a kind and likeable figure that Bigger doesn’t have any disdain for. Yet, it is Dalton’s daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley) as she is a radical who is engaged to a young activist in Jan Erlone (Nick Robinson) as Bigger thinks they’re good people but also a bit disconnected with the real world.
Rashid Johnson’s direction does have elements of style yet much of his approach to the compositions are largely straightforward as it is shot on location in Chicago. Johnson uses the city as a character as it play into two different worlds of the city with one being urban and working class while the other is upper class and rich. Johnson’s wide and medium shots to play into these different worlds that Bigger is in the middle of as he wants to remain in his original environment but also sees the advantages of the upper class and what it has to offer. There are close-ups that Johnson uses to play into Bigger’s viewpoints on the world he’s in as he’s also narrating through voice-over narration as he copes with his situations in a poetic approach. Johnson also play into some of the tension that is happening with Bigger and some of his friends as one of them wants to do a robbery but is upset that Bigger isn’t black enough because of the music he listens to and the fact that he’s working for a white man. While Bessie gets to know Mary and Jan a bit, she is still unsure if they’re a good influence as she believes the former is trouble.
Johnson’s direction in the film’s second half is eerie as it play into the trouble Bigger gets into as it relates to Mary and Jan in their activities but also wanting to score drugs and be part of Bigger’s social circle. Bigger tries to keep them away from trouble but it is Mary and Jan that are the powder keg of emotions due to the fact that the former is really unstable. Its third act is about Bigger and the consequences of his time with Mary as he is aware that he would be in big trouble with the police largely due to the social injustices and inequalities. Johnson’s direction does put in some unique visuals yet play into the drama that Bigger endures as he is unsure of what he would do as he is also forced to confront his own identity as a young man and the world he’s in. Overall, Johnson crafts a riveting and eerie film about a young man’s opportunity goes wrong due to some awful decision involving both his urban environment and the world of the upper class.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its usage of natural lighting for many of the daytime scenes including some of its interiors as well as some low-key and stylish lighting for the interior/exterior scenes at night including a party scene with neon lights. Editor Brad Turner does excellent work with the editing as it has some stylish cuts including a few jump-cuts and montages as it play into the whirlwind that is Bigger’s life. Production designer Akin McKenzie, with set decorator Melisa Jusufi and art director Miles Michael, does fantastic work with the look of the Doyle family home as well as a few of the places Bigger goes to with Bessie, Mary, and Jan. Costume designer Elizabeth Birkett does nice work with the costumes from the leather jacket and punk paraphernalia that Bigger wears to some of the posh clothes that Mary wears in major social gatherings.
Hair stylist Tonya Johnson does terrific work with the look of the hairstyles of Bigger, Bessie, and their own social circle. Visual effects supervisor Joshua James Johnson does some fine work with some of the film’s minimal visual effects as it relates to a few dream sequences and set dressing in some parts of the film. Sound editors Mary Ellen Porto and Ryan M. Price do superb work with the sound as it play into the atmosphere of some of the locations including the parties that Bigger goes to. The film’s music by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is wonderful for its somber ambient music score as it play into the drama including moments of dramatic suspense while music supervisor Howard Paar creates a killer music soundtrack that ranges from classical music, hip-hop, and punk rock from Ludwig Van Beethoven, the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, and several others.
The casting by Raylin Sabo and Mary Vernieu do incredible work with the film’s ensemble cast as it include some notable small roles from Barbara Sukowa as the Daltons’ housekeeper Peggy, Jerod Haynes and Lamar Johnson as a couple of Bigger’s friends in Jack and Gus respectively with the latter feeling that Bigger is selling out, Stephen Henderson as the Dalton family’s old chauffeur who warns Bigger about what he’s getting into, David Alan Grier as Trudy’s boyfriend Marty who tells Bigger about the job, Elizabeth Marvel as Mary’s legally-blind mother, and Sanaa Lathan in a terrific performance as Bigger’s mother Trudy who is concerned about the opportunity that Bigger is embarking on. Bill Camp is superb as Mary’s mother and the wealthy Henry Dalton as a man who wants to give Bigger this opportunity and do well as he’s also someone who knows that Bigger is a good person and doesn’t want to get into any trouble.
Nick Robinson is excellent as Jan Erlone as a young activist who befriends Bigger as he wants to know more about Bigger’s world as isn’t as radical as Mary though is naïve about what he wants to do despite his good intentions. KiKi Layne is brilliant as Bessie as Bigger’s girlfriend who is a kind-hearted person that is a bit wary of Mary despite the opportunity that Bigger is getting as she becomes troubled by Bigger’s behavior late in the film. Margaret Qualley is amazing as Mary Dalton as the daughter of a wealthy businessman who is wild as well as having radical ideas of wanting to change the world yet is also a loose cannon due to her love of partying and causing trouble to the point that she would even make Bigger uncomfortable. Finally, there’s Ashton Sanders in a remarkable performance as Bigger Thomas as a young African-American man with a love of classical music and punk rock as someone who is given the chance to have this prestigious job yet he copes with the two worlds he live in as well as the consequences he would face as it is an understated and complex performance of a young man who makes bad decisions but also tries to comprehend what happened and how it would impact him.
Native Son is a marvelous film from Rashid Johnson that features incredible performances from Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, and KiKi Layne. Along with its ensemble cast, study of social classes, killer music soundtrack, and its evocative visuals. The film is a unique character study that explore a young man trapped into two different social environments and how it would impact the decisions in his life. In the end, Native Son is a remarkable film from Rashid Johnson.
© thevoid99 2021