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'Native Son' review: Thoughtful, but inert adaptation of Richard Wright's classic novel

Ashton Sanders in HBO Films' "Native Son," based

Ashton Sanders in HBO Films' "Native Son," based on the classic novel by Richard Wright. Credit: HBO/Chris Herr

MOVIE "Native Son"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The prominent visual artist Rashid Johnson has directed this present-day adaptation of the 1940 Richard Wright literary classic — based on a script by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks — about a young African-American man, Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders, "Moonlight"), who is hired by a wealthy Chicago family to be their chauffeur. "Big's" mom, Trudy (Sanaa Lathan), wants him to take the job, arranged for him by her friend Marty (David Alan Grier), but he's conflicted. The family, the Daltons, seem kind enough, while the father, Henry (Bill Camp), gives him personal use of the car. A chauffeur is needed, in part, to drive his wife, Mrs. Dalton (Elizabeth Marvel), who is blind. But soon enough, the teen daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley) takes control of both car and driver, to the growing consternation of Big's longtime girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne).

MY SAY The early civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote an essay in 1903 for a book titled "The Souls of Black Folk" in which he described a "peculiar sensation" that he called "double-consciousness," or this "sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."

Du Bois continued: "One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

There may be a better or more prescient guide to "Native Son" than this, but it's hard to imagine a more concise one. Johnson and Parks even have Bigger paraphrase this at the end of their film, as a pointed reminder of his own two-ness, his own double vision. Blindness versus sight — the great and terrible themes of both "Native Son" and Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" — figure in the film too. Bigger sees the world through a glass darkly, but the rest of the world sees him clearly enough. That may be what Johnson is getting at in this adaptation too: Seventy-nine years separate novel and movie, but the particulars remain the same, and so does Du Bois' tragic point of "looking at one's self through the eyes of others …"

But since we're on the subject of seeing, what exactly will viewers see here? For starters, an especially thoughtful film — that's already a given — but an unexpectedly inert one. That's a surprise only because there was nothing inert about Wright's fury. In fact, there's really only about half of the novel adapted here, and half of Bigger for that matter. Bigger's actions are soft-pedaled, one of his crimes excised altogether. That's because Johnson wants us to like him, or at least not be repelled by what he does. Wright had no such intention, or as he once explained, he sought in Bigger "something so hard and deep that readers would have to face (his novel) without the consolation of tears …"

Sanders' Bigger has a little more in common with a movie than book. Like Daniel Kaluuya's Chris Washington from "Get Out," both are seduced by affluent white liberals and to varying degrees by their spoiled daughters. The outcomes remain the same. When Big first wanders, slack-jawed, into the well-appointed living room of the Daltons — appointed, amusingly enough, with a large piece of art by director Rashid Johnson — viewers' first impulse will be to yell "get out now." Bigger doesn't. That outcome remains the same too.

BOTTOM LINE Thoughtful but inert.

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