I suppose it’s a kind of truism in Hollywood that there’s an inevitable loss when adapting a literary novel into a film. How does one manage the complexity of a character’s internal world, so often the meat of a novel, in a medium that, for all its facility with time and place, nevertheless privileges observable presence, the visible, the gesture? But then, why should a film embrace the losing game of fidelity to the original text? Why not recognize filmic adaptation for what it always is: an interpretation, an opportunity to reflect on and perhaps critique the original?

Native Son
Rashid Johnson, director of Native Son, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Eric Vogel

Okay, well, marketability aside, this seems like an understanding and an opportunity missed in Rashid Johnson’s Sundance 2019 opening night film Native Son, a contemporary adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel of the same name.

As in Wright’s novel, Johnson’s film centers on a young black man, Bigger (Big) Thomas, living with his family in a rat-troubled (if not quite infested) apartment in Chicago. Bigger (moodily performed by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders) works as a bicycle courier, but dreams of the greater things of which he feels himself capable, even if he can’t yet imagine what those things might be. As his friends try to lure Bigger into various petty crimes in the neighborhood, his mother’s boyfriend offers him a better option: chauffeuring a wealthy white developer, his blind wife, and vapid, college-age daughter, Mary—room and board included. Readers of the novel will recognize these details as unchanged from the original, just as they will recognize the slaying of a rat with a frying pan in an opening sequence. Why is it that that pan, despite its fidelity (and efficacy), feels so archaic when it’s wielded by Sanders’ neo-punk Bigger—crowned with turf-green dyed hair—an aficionado of the Dead Kennedys as well as Beethoven, and a reader of Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), August Meier’s Negro Thought in America (1963), Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014), and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2016)—all elements of the film’s often meticulous and unsubtle mise en scène?

What sets that pan ringing is the struggle of the film’s misguided efforts to retain Wright’s mid-20th century world (oh, that coal-burning furnace) in the present, to aggressively eschew being a period piece, but never actually living up to the challenge of imagining the complex continuities of a relentlessly oppressive culture that it so badly wants to show us, and that we so badly need to see. Suzan-Lori Parks’ script includes a few buzzy references to Occupy and The People’s Movement, name-checked by Mary, who, along with her feckless boyfriend, Jan (a Communist in the book), admits that she knows nothing about the lives of African Americans. Maybe that’s the reason she and Jan, wannabe activists, appear ignorant, too, of #BlackLivesMatter. The movement is never acknowledged, in fact—save for a single, significant departure from Wright’s original, which the film seems to prize.

The problem here is that the present and the post-Wright past exist mainly as set dressing, as Bigger’s reading material and as the film he and his friend sneak into at a theater where another friend works: Melvin van Peebles’ 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The consciousness, self-representations, and movements that separate Johnson’s Native Son and Wright’s strangely don’t seem to have manifested in any of the black characters, while the overt and implicit racism of the white characters remain in place, evolving only as a kind of sexualized ally-ism. With Bigger deprived of the full power of a contemporary consciousness, the game is even more rigged against him, and the viewer, so that the realities of a continuum of psychological, economic, and physical violence done to non-white bodies feels flattened out, deeply oversimplified, and unanalyzed.

And yet…

As the Sweet Sweetback theme plays in that movie theater scene, I imagine an alternative version of this film, one that takes its interpretative role seriously and allows all this history to exist at once in the film’s contemporary moment, a version that abstracts Wright’s narrative into something more like a horrifying archetype played out over half a millennium, a revelation of our deadly intransigence, our incapacity to see.

What a film that might have been.

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