Film & TV

HBO’s Native Son: Martyr Myth Dressed Up as Art

Ashton Sanders in Native Son (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)
The self-congratulatory academic class sells ‘critical race theory’ dressed up as art.

HBO’s new update of Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas novel Native Son cleverly drops the name of 1990s rapper Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G.) so as to avoid dealing with changes in black American culture since Wright published his novel in 1940.

Director Rashid Johnson and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks want to make sure we know that the ideas in Wright’s legendary book have been subsumed in their politically correct, avant-garde (i.e. “post-black”) consciousness. The advent of hip-hop, in which black American youth proclaimed their social awareness, preceded Johnson and Park’s conceit by rapping rebellious self-assertion that wasn’t always politically expedient (Biggie’s breakthrough was the Junior Mafia song “Get Money”).

Hip-hop’s new independence — and Biggie’s autonomy — contradicts every example of persecution that Bigger Thomas stood for, but Wright ’s protagonist remains the classic figure of oppressed black youth: condemned to poverty, crime, murder, and extermination by the state. James Baldwin hated the archetype’s standing in American literature (“Everybody’s Protest Novel” he called it) and especially in the political imagination.

Still, Bigger Thomas’s infamy outstrips any Baldwin creation; his fate has reasserted itself this millennium through sentimentalized discussions about “the black body,” police brutality, and mass incarceration. The fact that we cannot escape Bigger Thomas’s ghost is partly due to Johnson and Park’s fashionable decision to subvert Wright’s cautionary book — as well as Biggie’s most audaciously funny rapscallion recordings — and turn out one more urban-tragedy scenario, now carrying the imprimatur of HBO slickness. (The film was originated at A24, the company responsible for Moonlight.)

This millennial Native Son is de trop from its beginning: Bigger (lean, handsome Ashton Sanders, cagier than he was in Moonlight) is introduced as beyond hip-hop. He’s a Chicago native but not part of its gang culture (more on that irony later). Bigger is Punk — super marginalized, with dyed-green close-cropped hair, wearing finger rings, nail polish, a black leather jacket with “Freaking Out” painted in white graffiti-scrawl, plus metallic S&M regalia. A photo of Justice Sotomayor decorates his ghetto home, and he keeps a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man bedside, beneath a handgun. Having that many cultural talismans is just showing off. After all, Johnson is a prize-winning gallery sculptor-photographer, and Parks is a theater doyenne known for inscrutable, racially charged narratives. Wiping away the advancement of such film characters as Bernie Mac in Mr. 3000, Sanaa Lathan in Love and Basketball, and Michael B. Jordan in Creed, they take up what black academics call critical race theory and gild it with “art.” (Cinematographer-producer Matthew Libatique photographs his cast with ostentatious splendor. Take that, Barry Jenkins!)

Native Son has been taught in public schools for more than 50 years, so the story of Bigger working for a rich white family and eventually murdering their stock-figure progressive daughter should be as familiar as opera. By now, Bigger’s falling victim to a rigged criminal-justice system and the machination of Communist reformers should also feel rigged — except that HBO’s hip-hop and media-saturated audience has been encouraged to share Wright’s Communist susceptibility.

The filmmakers play on callow Black Lives Matter sympathies, communicating through codes that are separate from real-life poverty and disadvantage. Coming from the world of grant-supported-yet-guilt-ridden black intellectual subculture, Johnson and Parks fetishize and congratulate their own overcoming, deepening a “we go higher” class divide that has anointed new-media spokespeople for the black condition.

Their new Bigger (post-black, post-Biggie) embodies black bourgeois cultural aspirations. He earns an academic’s salary (a thousand bucks a week) as a chauffeur – the profession Lorraine Hansberry borrowed from Wright to symbolize a black male’s limited professional options in A Raisin in the Sun (notably without AOC’s “ain’t nothing wrong with that” pandering). Bigger’s beautician girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), sports a different hairdo in every scene, and he idolizes the black Detroit proto-punk band Death, another conspicuous fashionable escape from traditional black culture.

The film’s narrative is frequently suspended by art digressions. The plantation-size mansion of Bigger’s employer is a veritable museum filled with blue-chip modern black objets d’art (such tony celebrities as Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, and James Concannon). He hides his post-murder panic while surrounded by literary totems from Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual and Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death: Literature in Secret to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. Yet he’s never seen actually reading a book.

This is the third Native Son film adaptation, but the first to recapitulate the collapse of the American educational system that leaves students so culturally illiterate that Wright’s nightmare tale divided into FATE/FEAR/FLIGHT segments is no longer connected to moral experience. (The film censors Wright’s scene of Bigger decapitating a woman so that he can fit her corpse into a coal furnace.) Instead, Johnson and Parks rely on visual provocations: Bigger, next to a photo of Martin Luther King Jr., recalls his father’s death; Bigger and Bessie fornicate in a public toilet next to a photo of Bill Clinton.

Just as in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, the Chicago setting bears no relation to the complicated mix of social progress and government corruption that characterizes that city, especially since the Jussie Smollett fiasco. Hip-hop and trap music are still too déclassé for Johnson and Parks’s politics. Bigger’s earbuds blare the subcult Death recording “We have waited so long for someone to come along and correct our country’s law.” Unfortunately, that lyric is not prescient, but it indicts Chicago’s political legacy as a national tragedy in the wake of Obama’s confounding, heartbreakingly ineffectual reign.

Bigger’s internalized guilt is overlooked as a matter of fashion, and exculpating his actual guilt is also a matter of fashion. Ultimately depicting Bigger as a Michael Brown–style martyr killed by police indifference is politically dishonest — an art crime that disavows social changes that have improved and complicated black American identity and self-sufficiency since the civil-rights era. The only good update is Bigger’s mother, Trudy, made empathic by Love and Basketball’s Sanaa Lathan, a natural movie star (that Lathan is not a movie star suggests that Hollywood racism is real).

Native Son’s new martyr myth illustrates the crisis of today’s mainstream culture posing as the counterculture. This is not a golden age for black filmmaking, just a pile-up of misconceived notions, ambitious hustlers, and disingenuous gatekeepers patronizing their lessers and pretending triumph — deluding themselves and their audiences.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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