Playing in the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 108 minutes. Next screenings: Saturday, Jan. 26, noon, Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, Provo Canyon; Wednesday, Jan. 30, 6 p.m., Library Centre; Thursday, Jan. 31, 11:45 p.m., Egyptian Theatre, Park City.
It takes guts to re-imagine a classic piece of literature into a modern setting, and painter and first-time filmmaker Rashid Johnson boldly dives into his adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son” — and just as boldly drives the enterprise off the rails.
The movie, like the book, follows the life of Bigger Thomas (played by “Moonlight’s” Ashton Sanders), a young African-American man whose life seems to be going in several directions at once. He’s smart, ambitious, hard-working, and determined not to fall into the “least-common-denominator” version of a black man. He works as a bike messenger, is devoted to his girlfriend Bessie (KiKi Layne, from “If Beale Street Could Talk”) and his doting mom (Sanaa Lathan).
Thanks to a connection from Mom’s boyfriend (David Alan Grier), Bigger gets a job as a driver for Dalton (Bill Camp), a Chicago real-estate tycoon. Bigger drives Dalton to work, then takes blind Mrs. Dalton (Elizabeth Marvel) on errands, and shuttles their daughter Mary (Margaret Qualley) to her college classes.
Mary, who acknowledges the “affluenza bubble” in which she lives, tries to make friends with Bigger. They share confidences, like the fact that he’s driving her to radical political meetings, where she meets her boyfriend Jan (Nick Robinson).
The screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, deftly depicts how the issues Bigger faces as a black man in 21st century America have scarcely changed since Wright wrote the novel 80 years ago. But where Wright depicted Bigger as a victim of his circumstances, Parks and Johnson seem to want to give Bigger some agency — which ultimately runs counter to the intended message.
There’s a centerpiece scene in “Native Son” — the furnace scene — that Johnson and Parks re-create with stunning, and somewhat anachronistic, fidelity. The problem is that the scene is so jarring that the rest of the movie never returns to the fascinating groove the filmmakers and this sublimely talented cast established in the first half.