Present-day adaptation of ‘Native Son’ opens Sundance 2019
Largest indie film festival in U.S. has another record year of black films, black casts and black leads
PARK CITY, Utah — And now, we’ve finally arrived in the space we’ve been waiting for since, well, ever. Black Hollywood — and those who care about the telling of stories that don’t feel or look stridently white, and those who care about stories that represent a full-scale black experience — is starting to see the shift, and it’ll play out quite nicely at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
The annual festival kicked off Thursday, and at 9 p.m. the hotly anticipated world premiere of a modern adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic Native Son played to a sold-out crowd.
For literature purists, it’ll be an adjustment; the film is set in a contemporary Chicago. Bigger Thomas is a punk rock fan who rocks green hair and an overcoat that feels very Green Day-ish. But the changes in this film version from first-time director Rashid Johnson — it was adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks — aren’t just aesthetic. Some parts of Wright’s most notable piece of work, narrative decisions that were criticized when the novel was published in 1940, have been altered. One major change? A brutal rape scene has been cut.
But, via a portrayal by Ashton Sanders (he wowed as the teenage version of Chiron in Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight), we still get much of the classic story of Thomas, 20, who wants to escape his impoverished South Side Chicago neighborhood. He goes to work for a wealthy and powerful white family and is largely tasked with driving Miss Mary, their college-age daughter. Mary likes the company of her socialist-leaning boyfriend, who skirts and is sickened by the wealth that Mary comes from.
The young white couple wants Big (as he prefers to be called) to understand that they believe they are sensitive to the plight of black folks: “I live in my affluent bubble,” Mary says to Big at a bar one night, “and don’t even know what black people think about what’s going on.” Like in the novel, Big accidentally kills Mary. He panics, and then there’s a horrifying scene of him dragging and placing her body in an incinerator. Soon Big is on the run, and he’s questioned by his girlfriend Bessie (KiKi Layne of If Beale Street Could Talk). And instead of the much-lauded following scene in the book, there’s a pivot.
“We initially wrote it with Bessie’s death,” the director said in a post-screening Q & A. “Our intention was to give Bigger an opportunity to be both complicated and empathetic simultaneously, and that was … a step off of a cliff that didn’t allow us to tell the story in a way that we thought would facilitate conversation. That level of violence against women … would’ve hijacked some of the more fascinating topics we begin to explore in this story.”
Considering the audible gasps and full-on body twists that emerged from many in the packed theater on Thursday, that was a wise choice. The night’s crowd included much of the cast — such as Sanaa Lathan, who stars as Bigger’s mother — and notables such as content creator Lena Waithe, who later this week will present her serial adaptation of Boomerang, and new Netflix executive Tendo Nagenda, as well as an unprecedented number of black critics and cultural journalists.
It feels like a moment — one this industry has been asking for and awaiting for years. Bigger than Native Son is the idea that studios have interest in getting classic black stories on air. And that a space like Sundance, which was founded in 1978, is becoming a comfortable place for black visual artists and content creators and fans of good cinema to see black art presented and appreciated.
Ahead of the Thursday night premiere, HBO Films acquired the project — a bit of surprising news, considering that it was thought to have a theatrical release — but that means Native Son will air on the premium cable network sometime in 2019 and quite likely have a larger audience by doing so.
There will be more victories, as the festival has yet another record-breaking year for films with black casts, black directors or black leads. Native Son was a fine opener, even though the reviews will likely be mixed. It’s one of 112 films that will screen across 10 categories, including the U.S. competition, world competition and NEXT, and there will be more work from actors including Viola Davis, David Oyelowo, Storm Reid, Mykelti Williamson, Bryan Tyree Henry, Octavia Spencer and Chiwetel Ejiofor plus a new Arthur Ashe documentary.
It’s about time. And it feels, well, Wright.