I’m going to do something different by speaking solely about the adapted piece by director Rashid Johnson and screenwriter Suzan Lori-Parks independent of its source – the controversial novel released by Richard Wright in 1940.
‘Native Son’ reimagines Bigger ‘Big’ Parks as a young man (Ashton Sanders) in present-day Chicago at somewhat of a crossroads who finds himself taking a job as the chauffeur to an affluent business owner. If you haven’t read the book or seen the trailer for the film, things go about as badly as we expect them to.
***Caution: Some Spoilers Ahead***
Even in seemingly harmless encounters, the language subtext, acting, music, and shadows all come together to scream something sinister lurking underneath. It’s a common feeling in the pit of your stomach when you enter a new space as a POC. How much censoring is required of me today? It’s an unconscious question. Experts in versatility, we adjust to these imposing structures with ease and ‘NS’ presents an interesting insight into this very practice.
The film succeeds in examining performance of blackness juxtaposed by that of those who encounter and admire it. The perfect example is in the character Mary (Margaret Qualley) when she turns on rap music in the car. She expects Big to respond in a permissive manner. She dances to the music while staring at him, awkwardly signifying that she “sees” him and therefore can relate to him. He entertains this until he doesn’t, revealing his affinity for rock and classical music.
We examine these displays of blackness in a multitude of social arenas: performance in a job setting. Performance in our own spaces under the white gaze. Performance in casual white spaces. And performance within our own family. Big’s afropunk exterior, donning green hair, black nails, and heavy jewelry is an important and overlooked contribution to his experience today. He is met with love, opportunity, and opposition, both in and outside of his community, and ultimately, his own destruction.
It’s in the moments where Big and Bessie (Kiki Layne) sneak to an empty hallway or bathroom or a brief embrace after a big altercation, their own spot on a crowded beach where intimacy and truth reside. They are each other’s as they are. And in those moments, there is peace in the world. Because of this, she is the one person he cannot fool or hide from, which is why her leaving him, seals his tragic fate.
“I gotta find a way to be ok somehow. Find a way to be something other than…something…other than…what I am.” – ‘Big’ Parks
We are your friends and we are not your friends. Imposters on our own land. Conditioned to hate ourselves and kiss the mouths that sing these messages both at the top of their lungs and in the faintest of whispers – and to kiss them without question.
‘NS’ is a commentary on what can happen when a black man realizes his full potential within a world that’s willfully blind to it. We are your drivers. Your messengers and servers. Your drug dealers. Vacations from affluence if you so desire it. Spectators at a symphony. Detectives. Your protectors. We are all these things and yet you still don’t know us. You can’t know us. The danger in being everything for everyone is sooner or later you catch up with yourself. The question is, if you dare open your eyes to who stands before you…do you have a hope in hell in recognizing the person staring back?