Tension and agitation are often at the center of Rashid Johnson’s art. He’s best-known for paintings of faces with bulging eyes and mouths scratched out of black soap and wax, all part of a series titled “Anxious Men.” So it might not be surprising that the protagonist in Native Son—Johnson’s debut as a film director, which premieres on HBO in America on Saturday—is also wracked by anxiety. Bigger Thomas (or Big, as he’s called) is in need of relaxation, and he can’t seem to find it. He has committed no crimes, but white people treat his very existence as criminal. He’s a black man living in America, and he’s rarely allowed to forget it.
Johnson’s complex portrait of American identity is not just any debut, thanks to the talent involved. Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, wrote the screenplay adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son. For an update, she transported the story from 1930s-era Chicago to the present day, such that she was able to work in meditations on white fragility, police brutality, and gentrification. Ashton Sanders (the young star of Moonlight) plays Big, a young man having an identity crisis in Chicago (Johnson’s hometown).
Big’s life seems to be leading him toward violence—in the opening minutes, he plunks down a pistol on top of a copy of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. But he is a pacifist uninterested in the robberies that his friends pursue, and he has an unusual affinity for punk music and Beethoven. He stands out among his peers with a look that tends toward spiky jewelry and a leather jacket with the words “FREAKING OUT” crudely scrawled onto its back—a cry for help or a reminder to himself of his own condition, or possibly both.
Early on, beneath that jacket, Big is forced to don a suit on his way to a job interview at the suburban manse of a middle-age wealthy white businessman (Bill Camp), who goes on to hire him as a driver for his daughter (the excellent Margaret Qualley). Within the different froufrou digs, Big is out of his element, his image mirrored only by the African-American figures in artworks by Deana Lawson, Amy Sherald, David Hammons, and Kara Walker that hang on the house’s walls. (Also in the collection is one of Johnson’s “Anxious Men” works.)
Johnson adeptly turns up the tension in the dynamics at play, with the daughter uttering a litany of microaggressions as the two grow close. She jokes about wanting to touch Big’s dyed neon-green hair and asks where he “summers.” Each offense puts the viewer on edge, and the tension is so palpable that the film occasionally verges on horror, with Big in dimly lit environments as droning music plays. (One might think at times of Get Out, another film in which a black man seems constantly under surveillance in white suburbia.)
He moves in a way that communicates extreme discomfort, all rigid and tense, while she repeatedly taps her fingers against her face, as though she’s nervous in the presence of a black man but can’t admit it to herself. The film’s soft, foreboding look was crafted by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who worked on the recent hit A Star Is Born and the stressful long takes for Darren Aronofsky’s madcap mother! Here he creates neatly composed images that mirror Big’s nerves through slow zooms and shots from behind, with the protagonist often standing against out-of-focus environs.
When the tension boils over at a critical moment, Native Son goes off the rails. As the story becomes a sort of survival thriller, the changes to Wright’s novel become more significant, and the theoretical concerns grow unfocused and muddled. Broached so thoughtfully in early parts of the film, questions relating to double consciousness—Big having to perform an authentic version of blackness while also acting out a rendition of it palatable to whites—turn crushingly literal in time. (In a voiceover, Big describes “this peculiar sense of measuring oneself through the eyes of others.”) And added elements such as a police shooting come across as overwrought attempts to situate the story in the present.
Native Son confidently shows that problems afflicting black youths in America today are vast, diverse, and intertwined. But, in his first attempt at least, Johnson doesn’t show as sure a hand as a director as he does in his other forms of art, and an operatic finale to the film proves a misfire. One wishes that Johnson would never release the tension in his potboiler—as he’s best at constructing scenarios that could explode into something bigger but remain unresolved and left to fester.