Everybody’s Next Protest Movie

By  · Published on February 24th, 2017

Rashid Johnson and Suzan-Lori Parks to finally give ‘Native Son’ the movie it deserves

Oprah Winfrey stars in a 1986 adaptation of Native Son

In a review of one of his more recent shows in the New York, Cameron Shaw wrote: “The series of loose portraits in black soap and wax animates what [Rashid] Johnson has termed the ‘now space’ of being a black man in America.” Elsewhere, Johnson’s prodigious visual work have given him the popular title “artist-magician.” Per Deadline, Johnson is now going to start directing movies. Along with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks on the script, he is set to direct an adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Michael Sherman, executive producer of the documentary American Anarchist (2016), and Matthew Perniciaro, who once wrote a rom-com called Standing Still (2005), are set to produce. Parks, as one generally is, is most well known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Topdog/Underdog.” Its off-Broadway debut in 2001 starred Don Cheadle who was replaced by Mos Def when it hit Brodway. I, on the other hand, know Ms. Parks from Spike Lee’s Girl 6 (1996), which she penned and which featured Quentin Tarantino wearing a backwards baseball cap, playing a movie director who demands Theresa Randle unbutton her blouse to get a role.

That was a long time ago.

Native Son is an interesting work to bring to screens. A seething, brutal and bestselling allegorical tale of poverty and race set in Chicago’s South Side, it reads something like the battered copy of Albert Camus’ Stranger lurking underneath Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and is remembered more often as a historical artifact: the first Black novel about racism to be read by millions of white people.

Wright himself was a divisive figure. Ellison admitted his influence while James Baldwin, whose own unfinished Remember This House was recently adapted into the highly acclaimed Oscar nominee I Am Not Your Negro, has a money quote attributing Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, territory “in the skull” of Black people in America. Simultaneously, though, Baldwin decried its style and genre, “the protest novel,” as pamphlets in literary disguise; a view that the novelist Ayana Mathis recently seconded in The New York Times, writing that “Bigger Thomas…cannot transcend blackness, and his blackness, in Wright’s hands, is as ugly and debased a thing as ever was.” In Wright’s novel, popular white caricatures of Black life are attacked by setting them into printed word, enacted in order to be tortured. Charged territory. Baldwin, himself, would latter amend his criticism (sort of):

I was always exasperated by [Wright’s] notions of society, politics, and history, for they seemed to me utterly fanciful. I never believed that he had any real sense of how a society is put together. It had not occurred to me…that his major interests as well as his power lay elsewhere.

That “elsewhere,” however, has eluded the silver screen. Orson Welles, who probably enjoyed a more financially successful career producing behind the stage, put on an adaptation of the novel, adapted by Wright and Paul Green, another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, on Broadway while waiting for some movie called Citizen Kane to hit finally theaters. And while Welles’ adaptation was well received enough to merit, say, a national tour, subsequent adaptions have fared worse critically and commercially.

Its first splash on cinema screens was made by Pierre Chanel in 1951, shot in and around a Buenos Aires that did not look very much like Chicago. Faring worse was the casting decision, not pointing fingers here, to cast Wright, himself, in the role of Bigger Thomas. Wright, in addition to being one of the most powerful and polarizing novelists of the modern era was also decidedly not an actor. “He couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag,” Indiewire wrote last year, after a newly-restored version of Chanel’s film premiered at MoMA.

Rashid Johnson’s Untitled Anxious Man (2014)

Native Son hit screens again in 1986, curtesy of PBS’ American Playhouse series, in a Richard Wesley (Uptown Saturday Night) penned adaptation starring Victor Love, who was once in an episode of Miami Vice. More remarkable was its supporting cast: Oprah Winfrey, in her second-ever acting gig, played Thomas’ long-suffering mother shortly after her award-nominated turn in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. Matt Dillion also played a basic white guy who learns things, a role he would reprise in his most well-known turn in Paul Haggis’ Crash (2006). More importantly was the issue of the novel itself: a review in the The New York Times suggests that novel’s unsympathetic hero ‐ he accidentally kills one person and then kills another to cover up the first murder ‐ created his own problems. Wesley’s version, for instance, axes the second, and more deliberate, murder.

Of course, its not like unsympathetic qualities have ever stopped people from finding vague inspiration in the likes of Tony Soprano or Walter White, so perhaps a newer and more comfortably ambiguous adaptation of Native Son is just what this cultural moment needs. Johnson’s visual work has veered from photorealistic depictions of pain and agony in the early 2000s (a early work like Jonathan with Eyes Closed (1999) particularly sets Johnson as adherent to a certain post-Chuck Close of school of visual bombast) to delicate pieces of abstraction that waver ambivalently between meanings and symbols as neurotically as any of Richard Wright’s protagonists. And Parks, whose last play almost snagged her another Pulitzer in 2015, remains a remarkable producer of lyrical dialogue, suggesting that their version of Native Son might veer away from the overwrought hardscrabble-ness of its source material. With interest in reevaluating America’s relationship with race at bestselling high, it just might profit to dig back into the source material.

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movies are not magic but skin and bone.