Big (Ashton Sanders), the central character of Rashid Johnson’s “Native Son,” is a twitchy existential brooder in his early 20s who styles himself like a thrift-shop literary gangsta. Tall and glowering, with a rail-thin frame, he wears high-water pants and white socks, black nail polish and an array of death rings, tortoise-shell glasses that lend him a touch of Malcolm, a shiny leather jacket with the words “Or am I freaking out” spray-painted on the back like graffiti, and — to top it all off — short hair dyed very bright green. No question about it: This kid has a lot of look.
If it’s hard to say precisely how the pieces of his image fit together, the confusion is intentional. He’s having a little trouble with that one himself. Big is short for “Bigger” — and yes, despite the inner-city punk trappings, he’s still very much a version of Bigger Thomas, the wary antihero of Richard Wright’s legendary 1940 novel. Rashid Johnson, the 41-year-old conceptual artist, directing his first feature (from a script by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks), has updated the novel to contemporary Chicago, creating a scruffy urban culture that feels lived-in and believable. He spends a good deal of the film using the bare bones of Wright’s novel as a kind of springboard.
“Native Son” is a drama of vibrant moodiness, and Matthew Libatique’s cinematography lends it a hot sensual street glow. Big, who keeps a gun in his room along with a copy of “Invisible Man,” is a bike messenger from the South Side who’s trying to figure out where he fits in, what his future is, or if he even has one. A local hood wants him to help knock off a convenience store, and he’s smart enough to turn that one down.
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But what are his options? Ashton Sanders, who gave far and away the greatest performance in “Moonlight” (he played Chiron as a haunted middle-school wallflower), has a poetic presence and, in “Native Son,” does most of his acting between the lines. The things Big says, with a kind of testy growl, are just functional; they’re his way of getting through an encounter. But his nervous, laser-like focus is wildly sympathetic. Big has a girlfriend (KiKi Layne) who gives him a lot of grief, and he’s too busy reading every situation, especially where white people are involved, to do anything but play-act.
For about an hour (the movie runs close to two), updating “Native Son” seems like a solid and resonant idea. No less a figure than James Baldwin complained that Bigger Thomas, as a hero, was too abstract, and Johnson, as a filmmaker, and Sanders, as an actor, go a long way toward filling him in. When Big lands a job, for $1,000 a week, as a live-in driver for Henry Dalton (Bill Camp), a businessman whose colonial mansion looks like Wayne Manor in the ’60s, it multiplies Big’s perspective, and the film’s encounters start to gather some heat and friction.
Dalton is the picture of a jocular good liberal (he makes sure to drop his hip-hop bona fides), but that just makes us think, along with Big: What’s he hiding under the surface? And his daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), is such a progressive but narcissistic brat, railing on “capitalism” but loving her privileged life — and, for all that, she’s winsomely charming, like Kristen Stewart with less despair — that as soon as she and Big are in the same room together, you know there’s going to be trouble.
But it’s trouble for the movie, as well. In Wright’s “Native Son,” Bigger Thomas is too abstract, but the power of the novel is that Bigger embodied a drive, a violence, that made him the link between Stagger Lee and Sweetback. (In an early scene, Big goes to see “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song” in the theater his friend sweeps up at). Bigger was a badass before his time. But that quality of his carries much less power in an era where African-American heroes who won’t back down have lost any hint of the exotic. By jettisoning the ’30s setting, Johnson actually makes it much harder to see Big as radical.
The character, as presented, isn’t trying to stir things up. He’s just trying to get through the day. But there’s too much prejudice swirling around him; if he’s caught in a situation that even looks questionable, he’ll lose his job. And that’s why he does…what he does. I won’t give it away, but it’s no longer a plausible response to fear — it’s just a movie contrivance — and, unfortunately, the entire rest of “Native Son” grows out of it. When Big goes down to the furnace room, it’s painful, because we suddenly seem to be stuck in some pulp nightmare, and the movie we were watching was better than that.
There’s a fatalism to the design of “Native Son” (the novel) that was forceful back in the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s but feeds into what could now be seen as too much blanket victimization. Once Big makes his fatal mistake, his goose is cooked, there’s no way out, and the forces gather around him. It’s not as if a scenario like that one can’t play today (just watch “If Beale Street Could Talk”), but “Native Son,” after its promising first half, leaves you dispirited, because it’s a movie where hope gets snuffed by a stacked deck.