A young African-American living in Chicago enters into a seductive new world of money and power after becoming a chauffeur for an affluent businessman.
Native Son Rendy Review
Bigger “Big” Thomas, a young African American man, lives with his mother and siblings in Chicago. Half-heartedly involved with a girlfriend, he sports green hair and a punk jacket, smokes weed, and carries a pistol—but rebuffs his buddy’s “easy-money” scheme to knock off a corner store. Full of self-determination, Big accepts a job as the chauffeur for wealthy businessman Will Dalton’s family. Moving into their mansion, he begins driving Dalton’s vehemently progressive daughter, Mary. But his involvement in an accidental death places Big on a collision course with the powerful social forces pitted against him.
The majority of the positivity I feel towards Native Son lies within the first act of the narrative. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks brings this period piece novel and adapts it with her own contemporary light. In this adaptation, Big starts off as a really fly character. He has swag, a smooth personality, and his own identity. He may come across as your typical punk dude who looks like he came straight out of Hot Topic due to his wardrobe and his music taste, which is mostly heavy rock, but what makes him badass is his ability to code switch. Many recent movies with a central African American lead are shifting with the times and for the beginning part of the film, I liked the kind of person that Big was. I love how outspoken he was with his ideas, but when he gets hired by an upper class white family, all of that is stripped away as he is focused on fear, which is relatable.
It goes without saying that Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) does a great job portraying this character. This role gives him a perfect chance to shine, and shine he does. Throughout the film, he has this very captivating energy that is entertaining and he gives nothing but his A-game throughout. The moments that work best for him are the scenes he shares with his on screen girlfriend Bessie, played by Kiki Layne (Beale Street). The Barry Jenkins cinematic universe is colliding and I am here for it. Because of the two Jenkins alumni performances and the chemistry they share, the film shines at its brightest. The relationship they share is great, for Bessie is never judgemental about his personal tastes, loves him for who he his and he has a loving loyalty towards her, even when it is tested.
A major aspect I loved about the film was the cinematography. The majority of the film has a beautiful look that is cinematic, stunning, and has such a magnificent usage of lighting. Every setting is unique and there are shots that are just mesmerizing and they brilliantly capture the look of Chicago. After a while you identify the cinematographer’s style and realize that the cinematographer is Matthew Libatique, who has a brilliant knack for capturing the authenticity of a city through the lens. He did it with Straight Outta Compton, Chi-Raq and A Star is Born. When the film deviates into a dark area, Libatique incorporates the talent prominent in his work with Aronofsky. From beginning to end, the film is stunning to look at and Libatique does a great job.
When it comes to getting great performances out of his cast and expressing his vision, director Rashid Johnson definitely delivers. For a directorial debut, he does a decent job. Now if only the screenplay was on par with his vision… Yeah…
I believe that Johnson has a great story to tell. Considering his background as conceptional African American artist-turned-filmmaker, this is a story that should be up his alley. But:
It’s not his fault at all, to be honest. The true issue is particularly the script adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks. The film powerfully establishes Big as a really enticing and likable character. You relate to this character and respect him, even when he acts violently at times. You emotionally resonate with Big, but right before the film transitions into the third act, the film drives off course, Thelma and Louise style.
When the film dives into a grey area, Big’s actions vastly differ from the well-developed character that we are introduced to in the first two acts. He delivers a heavily detrimental third act. He loses all track of logic, brain, smarts and there is no real progression that is plausible for Big to act the way he does. Despite how poetic it may seem at times, which is consistent, even the film’s conclusion leaves a terrible aftertaste in your mouth. The main reason why it is disappointing is because the script provides interesting concepts and themes for most of the film only to completely depart from them come the twist. From the many things that are taken from the source material by Richard Wright, that plot point is still present while it would’ve been effective if there was another liberty took.
It already takes the major liberty of setting this 1930s story in the modern day, but even then you can’t identify which year it is. The character of Jan is part of an occupy movement which was around 2009, yet in another scene, you see a character hit a weed pen which wasn’t really popularized until the 2010s. So, I was left in confusion.
Another thing I wasn’t fond of was how much the film never seems to create its own identity narrative-wise. As I said, there are great themes that are introduced, but they walk the lines of familiarity done better by other Black Cinema movies. The code switching aspect of Big is done better in 2015’s Dope. The race relations aspect was done better in Do The Right Thing. The entire horror element that prevails in the finale was greater in Get Out. Throughout the film you get nothing but reminders of stronger films that deliver its messages more effectively. Native Son juggles way too many concepts that by the end, it fails to achieve a single one.
To go on a tangent (which is really the purpose of this segment anyway), if you didn’t love Kiki Layne before, you’ll love her now. She is a fashion icon because with each scene she has a completely different look. From her hair to her makeup to her clothing, she stuns. There is a moment where Layne is in long dreads and wearing black lipstick and I swear I was so close to screaming: