Published on April 25th, 2019 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Native Son might not earn its running time, but proves rewarding in the end. Noah looks at the film that HBO picked up at Sundance.
Remember last year’s Sorry to Bother You? Its depiction of a young, black man’s disorienting and absurd experience with capitalism was handled in the zaniest, most satirical way possible. However, despite the anthropomorphic horses and “White Voice,”, the film was a message about myth of the American dream and its relationship with social class and race. Rashid Johnson’s Native Son is the antithesis of the latter film’s stylistic approach, instead structured as a slow-burning, intense character study. Yet, its snapshot-of-America sensibility can be summarized in a very similar way. Based on the novel by Richard Wright, Ashton Sanders stars as Bigger Thomas, also a young black man who faces a crossroads of personal identity when he accepts an unexpectedly well-paying job. But no matter the similarities in message, Native Son distinguishes itself, not through contrived suspense, but through intimate characterization.
The results are mostly effective, especially once the film’s second act starts chugging along. Big’s relationship with his job, especially when it comes to chauffeuring his employer’s pretty daughter, is bursting with tension and anxiety. The strength of Johnson’s direction comes in the form of a carefully crafted and nuanced fatal attraction that signifies, in the most sobering of ways, his permanent attachment to his race and the burden of expectation and stereotype that come along. This all reaches a haunting apex in a twist that I cannot spoil but will note requires a mild dose of suspension of disbelief. The film earns it about as well as it could for a film of its ilk, sucking you into the conflict to the point where it becomes more engrossing, more rewarding to simply go with it. And through that, it reaches a conclusion that is stomach-churning to say the least, anchored entirely by Ashton Sander’s brilliantly subtle embodiment of dark, selfish fatalism. He, along with the costume, hair, and makeup designers who shaped the look of the character, carries the film through sharp and nuanced characterization, making the screenplay which is light on grand gestures and expository beats successfully evocative. The film’s final thirty minutes leave us suspended in a purely banal state of dread as Big becomes trapped in a game he can’t win, and it works only because he is so fleshed out.
Premiering at Sundance earlier this year to glowing reviews and being snapped up quickly by HBO, I can see why it performed well with the Park City crowd. It builds tension brick by brick and only gains momentum the further down the rabbit hole it goes. That whole “its not how you start, it’s how you finish” attitude is infectious when crowds are hungry for some different, something fresh. Yet, while the film’s absorbing second half is ultimately what leaves an impression, the film meanders a little too long before getting there.
Plotless is not necessarily a dirty word in indie filmmaking and Johnson does utilize this time to flesh out Big’s environment, the lens through which he sees the world. But it is only when Big accepts the job (about 40 minutes in) that his arc takes shape and his true colors are revealed. The film’s beginning often feels unfocused rather than purposely withholding, especially when it leans on Big’s voice-over narration. The plot device proves more lavishly obtuse than enlightening. While we get an interesting glimpse into the wide array of influences in his life—his girlfriend who doubts his ambition, his friend who is trying to convince him to rob a convenience store, and his mother who is clearly worried about him—I think the foundational aspects of Big’s character could’ve been signified in a more efficient way.
Bottom line: Native Son might not earn its running time, but it will prove rewarding in the end. The film stuck with me the way a classic parable does. Its simplicity mixed with its symbolic nature gives rise to very prescient truths and thus it becomes incredibly memorable. Though the film has some clunky aspects, it proves that at the end of the day, if the message is both succinct and absorbing, it will touch people. I believe this film, more than anything, was made to do just that.