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African-American Classic ‘Native Son’ Film Adaptation as Relevant Today as 1940

Native Son is a film adaptation of a classic novel exploring social conditions a young African American man must cope with, issues that many consider still exist today.

Regarded as a classic work of 20th century African American literature, Native Son by Richard Wright is now a film, introduced at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 24 and scheduled to be on HBO later this year.

The story centers on 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, played by Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), an African American youth living in utter poverty in a poor area on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s. Wright explored the systemic inevitability behind crimes that Bigger eventually commits in the novel.

First-time director Rashid Johnson collaborated with Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”) on the new film, setting it in modern-day Chicago with Bigger as a punk-rock bike messenger. Critics have also praised Sanders for his “poetic” performance in the lead role.

An outsider in more ways than one, Bigger (also referred to as Big) is full of potential but limited by circumstance. For instance, he resists the drug-peddling lifestyle of friends.

Eventually, his mother’s boyfriend (David Alan Grier) finds a job offer for him: A wealthy white family is looking for a new driver, a position that comes with room and board and $1,000 a week.

His new employers, the Daltons, also have a daughter roughly his age, Mary (Margaret Qualley), who is curious about Big’s politics and lifestyle. Although her family doesn’t hesitate to show how enlightened and liberal they are—such as their staunch support the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—tensions and uncertainty prevail. Big obliges Mary’s requests and takes her boyfriend and her to his haunts around town, which eventually leads to a tragic twist of fate.

The Reviews of “Native Son” Are In

Critics have noted how the movie’s themes are still relevant in modern-day Chicago (and the US) as they were in the mid-20th century, when the original novel takes place.

Indeed, Chicago still makes headlines today for its high murder rate in correlation to the racial disparity that plagues the city. “When it comes to race in America, we’ve evolved [little] over the last 80 years, despite our self-congratulations,” writes Alissa Wilkinson in Vox. “Big’s tragedy, and America’s, is that things change a lot, and yet it’s striking how much they stay the same.”

Leah Greenblatt in Entertainment Weekly called the film “a cautionary tale about race and justice and personal responsibility.”


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