Adapted from Richard Wright’s beloved classic of the same title, Native Son is the coming of age tale of a young man trying to make sense of the world. Ashton Sanders transforms himself into an intellectual, punk rock loving, existentialist caught in between worlds as Bigger “Big” Thomas. While the performances are strong here, the adaptation of a 1940’s story to modern times doesn’t quite work as well.
Single mother, Trudy Thomas (Sanaa Lathan), is trying to make it with her three children after being widowed six years ago. Her new boyfriend (David Alan Grier) has a connection to Henry Dalton (Bill Camp) and knows that he’s looking for a new driver. Seeing it as an opportunity to make a little more money than he has been as a bike courier, Big takes the job.
Big quickly finds himself in a world where money seems to be no issue and things start off well. He drives for the family, but particularly Mr. Dalton’s daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley). She introduces him to some of her friends, and he introduces her to his, including a little ecstasy. After Mary gets super high one night, Big finds himself in a particularly difficult situation and a decision that changes the course of his life forever is made.
Kiki Layne, hot off of If Beale Street Could Talk, shines as Big’s hairdresser girlfriend, whose hair changes in virtually each scene she’s in. Sanders proves that he is a young actor to watch as he gives an extremely tempered and introspective performance as Big. Director Rashid Johnson certainly controls the pacing and camera throughout the film. Unfortunately, Suzan-Lori Parks’ (Their Eyes Were Watching God) screenplay doesn’t translate well. Big lives at home with his mom one day and then is a live-in driver the next, and it feels like the family story is thrown away until the film needs them again. There’s a strange Get Out vibe that comes and goes throughout the story as the Dalton’s try to show they’re down for the cause. Most importantly, Big’s life altering decision just isn’t what a young black man as seemingly educated as he is would make. He would have cut the opportunity to get to that crossroad way before he got there.
The novel presents a character who is trying to stir things up in a whirlwind of prejudice that surrounds him. His surrounding are a pressure cooker in which he feels trapped. This adaptation feels like while Big’s character may be dealing with issues, there’s always a feasible way out. While you may enjoy the ride for the first part of the film you’ll quickly want to get dropped off at the nearest stop about half way through.