Bigger Thomas is, how do you say, not like other guys. His short hair is dyed a bright neon green, he wears an oversized leather jacket with white lettering splattered on it and listens to both punk-rock and classical music. His entire existence seems to be of juxtapositions: he’s both quiet and snappy, he has dreams and aspirations but doesn’t do much to achieve them—that is, as he says in one of the many voiceovers featured in the film, due to the fact that he has yet to solidify what those dreams are.
When Bigger, or “Big” as his friends call him, takes a job driving around a local affluent white family, uneasiness sets in almost instantly. The mood of Rashid Johnson’s take on “Native Son” (which premiered at Sundance earlier this year) turns very “Get Out,” if “Get Out” were an A24 adaption of a 1940 novel.
“Native Son” is very much a directorial debut in terms of story, though Johnson, a prominent visual artist, scored Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique, whose most recent work includes “A Star is Born” and “Mother!” Together, the two put together a visually stunning film.
Where “Native Son” stumbled was its character work, specfically concerning Big. In Wright’s novel, Big’s actions, though not necessarily justified, at least make sense when looking at the character through a symbolic lens. Big is a product of the system, desperately trying to make something of his life, but finds himself forced into the life of crime that is often imposed upon Black youth by society. This symbolism is nowhere to be found in Johnson’s story; we get hints of it, like when Big is peer-pressured to rob a store with his friends, but nothing is presented clearly enough to make his choices in the latter half make any sort of sense.
Still, Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) does a great job with what he’s given. His portrayal of Big is authentic; albeit, like the plot, stronger in the former half of the film. The supporting cast, headed by Margaret Qualley (“The Leftovers”), Nick Robinson (“Love, Simon”) and Kiki Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), were all highlights of the adaption; especially Layne, who was criminally less talked about in favor of her male counterparts in both this and “Beale Street.” The vast differences between her characters in both and her ability to portray both with ease promise that this is only the start of a long career.
With all its flaws, Johnson’s modern take on the classic “Native Son” is still an entertaining film that simply ran out of energy at its finale.