The TV Room: Native Son, by David Bax
This review originally ran as a part of our Sundance 2019 coverage.
It’s not that we don’t need another movie that highlights the daily barrage of microaggressions a person of color faces in America. On the contrary, some of the best parts of Rashid Johnson’s Native Son (based on Richard Wright’s novel) involve the protagonist, a young black man named Big (Ashton Sanders), enduring insults from white people who are trying to relate to him, Get Out-style. It’s just that, in this particular case, those moments don’t add up to much since Johnson’s film is often just as reductive in its own way.
Big has a low-paying job as a bike messenger, a loving and independent girlfriend (KiKi Layne) and a supportive single mother (Sanaa Lathan). When Mom’s new boyfriend (David Alan Grier) recommends Big for a new job as driver to a one-percenter family, a new world is opened at his feet. After a frankly preposterous plot turn that could have sent Native Son in promising new directions, though, Johnson repeatedly makes the least interesting directorial choices possible.
That’s not to imply there weren’t missteps before then. Big’s musical preferences, mostly classical music and 1980s hardcore punk, could have been an interesting look at how identity leads to assumptions about culture that aren’t always true. But, like most young punk rockers, Big treats his tastes as a substitute for a personality and, unfortunately, Native Son does the same. Johnson displays no sense of irony; he thinks Big is every bit as cool as Big does.
Where Johnson does excel, though, is in his nods to genre. Specifically, he understands that, for a black man of Big’s economic standing, the world of upper class white people would not be unlike a horror movie. Johnson repeatedly frames Big inside corridors and alleys that offer few options for escape and accompanies these shots with ominous music from the guys behind the Stranger Things score.
That’s about as thoughtful as Johnson gets, though. When it comes to the movie’s racial politics, he shows us Big with a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and apparently expects that detail to do most of the work for him. Otherwise, discussions of racial politics and identity are disappointingly shallow. Add that to idiocies like Chicago apparently having a radio station that plays Minor Threat twenty-four hours a day and groaning dialogue like “Maybe the worst thing is to see but have no vision” and Native Son is almost as insulting to the viewer’s intelligence as its white characters are to Big.