Sundance 2019: Racing Against Racial Stereotypes Is A Heady Identity Crisis In Rashid Johnson’s “Native Son”, Film Companion

Dir: Rashid Johnson
Cast: Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, KiKi Layne

Bigger Thomas marches to his own beat. When he walks, he seems to be swaying to a Tarantino theme playing in his head. When he speaks, he sounds like he is daring the listener to guess the colour of his skin. He repeatedly listens to Beethoven’s ninth; “a masterpiece,” he gushes. He is the philosophical hero of his personal breakout movie; we hear his voice-over saying deep things, making sardonic observations about the environment and people…almost as if he wishes he were an existential white drifter. Bigger is a black man in Chicago, but he is far from a “black American indie” (say, a Moonlight, in which Sanders incidentally stars) in his head; he visibly resists, sometimes at the cost of physical and emotional subtlety, being another race stereotype.

He says “weed” when a friend asks him if he might ever get a job – and promptly cracks up, mocking the cliche of the popular narrative. He thinks he is different. Which is perhaps why his fashion sense is strangely similar to Michael Jackson’s – a black superstar who turned “white” in the long run. So Bigger does the next best thing: He starts working as a driver for a wealthy white family. The Daltons might seem like a creepy group straight out of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but Bigger – who doesn’t mind embracing the stereotype of slavery in order to transcend his roots – feels right at home with them. Until he doesn’t.

Rashid Johnson’s film, too, is anything but predictable. It internalizes the identity crisis of its protagonist for the most part. It trudges from tender coming-of-age underdog drama to rebel-without-a-cause angst to even a curious family thriller to a profound and provocative piece on the working-class African-American culture. Some of the scenes, especially those involving the Dalton daughter, refuse to conform, even as they tease us into “expecting” their chemistry to hijack the story. Most of all, though, Native Son works as a character portrait of a man who, by defying conceived notions, becomes the biggest of them all. He is trying so hard to escape the literature of his destiny that he ends up epitomizing the tragedy of poetry; coming “full circle,” in his context, suggests a return to the starting point.

Ashton Sanders acts like an enigma, like a boy who expends every ounce of his strength into looking out of place and weird and deliberately stilted; it is both a joy and a jolt to watch. The final shot is a newspaper headline, a familiar image that the film ends up contextualizing with its quasi-Shakespearean third act. It only confirms, much to our dismay, that movies are a reflection of life, no matter which narrative its inhabitants choose. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, after all, always had “black” in its title.

Rating:   star

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