When HBO Films bought the world-premiering “Native Son” earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, it felt that the movie, based on Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel of the same name, would focus on a subject to which modern audiences could certainly relate: the complicated issue of racism in America. But the filmmakers faced a harder task in telling the story of Bigger Thomas, a poor 20-year-old African American living in Depression-era Chicago — making the 1930s setting relevant to modern audiences.
The drama, which HBO premiered on the small screen April 6, toplines Ashton Sanders as Bigger and marks the directorial debut of visual artist Rashid Johnson, with a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. The talent pool behind the film includes production designer Akin McKenzie (“High Maintenance,” “Wildlife”) and Oscar-nommed cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“A Star Is Born,” “Black Swan”).
When Libatique first signed on to the project, he and Johnson came to the table with the identical visual reference in mind: Roy DeCarava, a photographer and artist who captured the lives of African Americans and jazz musicians in New York City in the mid-20th century.
That creative concept permeates “Native Son” in terms of composition, mood, feel and emotion conveyed with the camera, says Libatique. “In collaboration with Akin and talking about palette, how we approached the story photographically was in tune with the sensitivity that he had created — this semblance of a realistic world for Bigger, since Bigger is a larger-than-life character.”
It was important for the filmmakers and the DP to make sure that the character fits into today’s world and doesn’t seem too anachronistic. And although DeCarava’s work is half a century old, it helped inform the way Libatique illuminated scenes. “The emotion that the light conveys in a lot of his photography is a willingness to see in darker shades of gray. [There was] a philosophy behind each shot. And even though it was Rashid’s first film, he was conscious of things that we had going against us [with a low-budget production], so it was important to have a common ground that we could embrace creatively.”
Just as the DP took care to pay homage to the world of the novel, production designer McKenzie was equally meticulous in his creation of Thomas’ environment, which was built largely in the Cleveland area, where the film was shot in the spring of 2018. He saw Bigger himself as a piece of art — his jacket, his journal, the colors in his room — and he tried to explore black identity through every detail of the Thomas household, as well as the household of the Daltons, the affluent white family Thomas works for as a chauffeur.
“The way I approach any environment is digging through references and exploring truth,” says McKenzie. “You have to understand the individual stories you’re telling, because if you rely on your own projections, you can fall into tropes and stereotypes. I dig deeply.”