Film / TV

afropunk interview: ‘native son’s’ director & stars on breathing new life into classic book

April 6, 2019
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In 1940 Richard Wright wrote Native Son, a novel that introduced the world to Bigger Thomas. A true-to-life portrait of a young Black man’s life in America while living in a systematically oppressive society. With themes of fear, racism and violence, artist Rashid Johnson makes his directorial debut to modernize the story. HBO’S adaptation of Native Son updates the story to 2019 and examines the anxiety of living as a Black person in America. Rashid Johnson and the cast sat down to AFROPUNK about the film.

Native Son shed light on how systematic racism affects us. People were shocked and horrified by this at the book’s original release. Are you expecting the same kind of reaction here?

RASHID JOHNSON: I think this film asks different questions in some respects. We are talking about it in contemporary terms , but I think that it presents similar challenges and it’s going to make people think and it’s going to be frustrating, but ideally, hopefully very rewarding for the audience.

The original novel came out in 1940, do you think this story still rings true decades later?

ASHTON SANDERS: Yes, period.

JOHNSON: More than I would like to admit. I think that was part of the challenge and part of the goal of making it, was just wondering how much of this would stay relevant. How much of this is still a reality, and after producing the screenplay and then making the film, more of that is a reality than I think many of us would have liked to admit at the beginning of the process.

Do you feel like Bigger is a victim in any way?

KIKI LAYNE: I do. What we talk about a lot is the fear and anxiety that Black people carry with them. We are always a victim of that. Every. Single. Day. When you just feel uncomfortable being. Just walking down the street uncomfortable. Like I don’t know if somebody is coming to make an assumption about me like, am I violent? Am I ghetto? Or somebody’s going to attack me because of these assumptions. There’s this overwhelming feeling that people are looking at you like you’re a threat and then, at the same time, you’re constantly feeling threatened by everyone.

SANDERS: You have to ask, when did that start? And when you ask that question, it’s like, oh yeah, he is the victim. What if shit was different, you know? It’s like we have PTSD.

LAYNE: It affects our behavior. It affects our choices and we’re not even really aware of it. You walk around and you don’t even realize it. While working on this film, I had to ask myself, what are the fears and anxieties that I carry with me as a Black woman in America? So, looking at what happened between Big and Mary — it’s this situation where I’m a Black man in this white woman’s room after a certain time and she’s drunk…

While Bigger is the face of this story, we do see how his actions affect those close to him. Including Bessie. How does the violence that Black men are susceptible to affect the women in their life?

LAYNE: So, first of all, I feel like we’re often left out of the narrative. We discuss all of these different cases of police brutality and who are the victims and the statistics. So, one of the things [with] Beale Street, is that now you’re looking at the people that are left behind and all the women that have to surround this man and fight for him. And then doing Native Son, I thought it was dope. You know, bringing that same love to it, but having this moment where Bessie chooses herself or Bessie realizes, “I love you so much, but I can’t go to that place with you.”

 In love, there’s that ride or die aspect — but it’s like you’ve got to ride or die for yourself first. And I think we sometimes lose that. And so [at] that moment where she throws the gun, she runs out of there. For her, it’s like, “I love you so much, but right now I choose me.” I think it’s a beautiful thing to see a young Black woman making that decision, especially with young love it’s so easy to just get all wrapped up and twisted around your partner. And so to see this Black woman, see [her] still believe in what her future could be, even if she doesn’t have him, if he’s not there. And then also in that moment, forcing him to acknowledge like, “You did something here. I don’t have to pay for whatever it is that you did.”

Even though he committed this crime, she doesn’t look at him as a criminal. Like, you did this bad thing but it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but I can be pulled into that bad situation with you. And there was a lot of Black women that allowed themselves to be pulled into those situations. So it was nice to play Bessie in a way where that she chose herself.

SANAA LATHAN: This has been on my mind. You know, I’m not a mother in real life but it has been on my mind, as it is on every Black person’s mind. Just in terms of our society and seeing so much violence against, particularly, Black men, but also Black women. So, for me, I understood Trudy’s fear for her son and that feeling of every day that he walks out that door, she just prays that he survives.

What is Bigger afraid of?

JOHNSON: I think thematically fear is one of the most important aspects of this story. And in my initial reading of Wright’s Native Son, my first takeaway was how often the character admits fear and how often the character recognizes fear. And, as a community, because of masculinity and machismo culture, that is pervasive amongst males of any kind of background. More often than not, the idea of fear is so under-discussed. And when you’re dealing with a group of people who are facing the kinds of obstacles that people of color in this country are facing, for us to not be talking about the fear that we have as individuals is asinine, in my vision. And we see Bigger’s negotiation with that and we see how he explores his fear and we see how it leads to him making a decision in a split-second that is ultimately quite regrettable, but, in other aspects quite understandable. Because the motivating factor [is] the fear and anxiety of being exposed to a world [with] a set of conditions that he doesn’t feel comfortable trying to navigate.


Not many changes were made to the story outside of updating it. But the ending took a turn away from the book. Why was the ending changed? Why did we step away from Mr. Max and the prison?

JOHNSON: Well, it’s interesting because there’s kind of two answers to that, but both are pretty appropriate. One is in the storytelling. What we wanted to distill from the story, what we really wanted to take from Wright’s vision and how we were going to kind of navigate that space. It didn’t allow us to dig as deep into the post-murder space as maybe we would have liked. And as we were figuring out how to tell this story and how to bring it into kind of contemporary discourse in contemporary terms. It felt quite honest to imagine that it could have ended the way that we have decided to end the story.

Native Son premieres on Saturday, April 6 at 10pm EST.