Nearly 80 years separate the Chicago in Richard Wright's novel Native Son and the modern-day Chicago in Rashid Johnson's film adaptation, premiering on HBO this Saturday. In Johnson's retelling, the 20-year-old antihero Bigger Thomas, played by Ashton Sanders of Moonlight, wears a hand-painted leather jacket, sports bright green hair, and has punk music blasting out of his headphones as he bikes around the city—an even more alt, elusive, and paranoid outsider than Wright's original, and more suitable to this era. But really, the subtext of the stories hasn't changed all that much over time: black bodies are still being scrutinized, fetishized, and exploited by systemic injustices.
It's what drew the artist-turned-first time director to the project in the first place: "How things have changed and how they have not, but, really, how prescient the story remains to the present day,” explained Johnson, who was introduced to the work of Richard Wright by his mother when he was a boy, imagined himself in Bigger's shoes as a young man, and always wanted to adapt Native Son for the screen.
In his film, Bigger is living on the South Side of Chicago and applies for a chauffeur job with a rich white family, the Daltons, at the insistence of his mother, Trudy (Sanaa Lathan). The Daltons are well-meaning liberals who ultimately embarrass and isolate Bigger in the course of overcorrecting for their privilege; they pride themselves on donating to the NAACP and try to make Bigger feel more comfortable in their home by giving him his own room. Henry Dalton (Bill Camp), a real estate proprietor, is the father of Mary (Margaret Qualley), a fiery college student with far left politics who tells Bigger she thinks his green hair is “rad” but also puts him on the spot when she asks him if he’s outraged enough by the mistreatment of oppressed minorities to protest like she does with her political organizer boyfriend Jan (Nick Robinson). Bigger’s blackness is acknowledged by the Daltons, but in many ways they are “I don’t see color” liberals. (And Mrs. Dalton actually literally cannot see color, being blind.)
This is all intelligible in the foreground of Native Son, but it's the art in the background that feels both distinctly contemporary and ties Johnson’s film together to the classic work of American literature upon which it's based. In the film, the Daltons are collectors of what Native Son production designer Akin McKenzie calls “elevated black art.” The subjects of the art are black icons and black bodies, created by black artists of the current zeitgeist: Malcolm X by Glenn Ligon, Soweto Queen by Deanna Lawson, The Make Believer (Monet's Garden) by Amy Sherald, and a nightmarish silhouette by Kara Walker line the walls. There are African masks and statues in the living room and office. The spaces feel both unfamiliar and familiar to Bigger at the same time. He knows that the pieces are expensive, perhaps even rare, yet he cannot be sure who created the work or how the Daltons acquired it. He also knows he is surrounded by black voices, and is clearly familiar with some of the icons, like Ligon's rendering of Malcolm X, depicted in the artwork.
In the job interview scene, Bigger finds his way to a seat in the living room. While his discomfort is palpable, he also commands the space. His body is at the center of the room and the center of the family’s attention. He adjusts himself in accordance with the Daltons's gaze. This scene is another element of the film that was born from its director’s personal experience. “It is not uncommon for me to enter a home owned by a well-meaning liberal white family and see black art on the walls or in the background,” Johnson explained.
There's a large black-soap-and-wax-on-tile drawing on the wall by Johnson from a 2015 series called Anxious Men, which seems to only grow in meaning hovering behind Bigger's head. Johnson said that when it came to the production design, everything came back to the question, “What gives me the most anxiety?” For him, Anxious Men represents Bigger's anxiety and dissonance as he considers his own black identity in this tony white space filled with black voices.
Of course, it's not easy to get permission to feature all this of-the-moment black art in your movie. But it helps to be Rashid Johnson. “I just called everyone up,” he admitted, with a laugh. “The art world used to be smaller, but it’s still small."
Johnson also found a common language with McKenzie, who met him at an exhibition opening years ago. “I think he communicates in a visual language that lent itself to creating a film like this, especially with the content he deals with which is fine art. In production design, I deal in imagery and how I respond to it in a similar way. That gave us instant shorthand,” McKenzie said.
“The most important part of production design in my eyes is being able to share truth and individualism, and part of that is by treating environments with respect, understanding things like, poverty doesn’t mean destitution, and respect and love can be found anywhere and is an important part of all people’s lives,” Mckenzie added. "Shining the light on that helps us with our understanding of people in general, if we’re doing it right."
For Johnson, one goal of projecting work from the contemporary art world onscreen is to “build new black icons.” Between the time in which Wright’s Native Son was published and Johnson’s film was made, a number of black icons have been born and bolstered up in the culture, with the Obamas being perhaps the most impactful.
“There’s a constant theme that exists throughout the film of observing black identity and black individualism, and the power that fought for us and before us, and putting their voices and energy into this broader conversation we’re having with Native Son,” McKenzie said, pointing out the different versions of black iconography placed in various settings throughout the film, and how they are uniquely used in each space. In one scene that shows Bigger and his girlfriend, Bessie (Kiki Layne), in a South Side bar, there’s even a framed photograph of Bill Clinton, a comment on his image in the 90's as "the first black president” and his enduring popularity with black voters.
“In the book, the Daltons are profiting from the exploitation of people of color,” McKenzie said, referring to the fact that Henry Dalton owns the slum-like apartment building the Thomas family resides in on Chicago’s South Side. “There are these two incongruent pieces to them. There’s this attempt at liberalism, but there’s also the truth of how they really observe people of color." On screen, McKenzie and Johnson play with this tension, specifically with the inclusion of the Obama family as icons. Vera, Bigger’s sister, has a small, ripped poster of Amy Sherald’s First Lady Michelle Obama, the official portrait of Michelle Obama in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. It’s easy to imagine a young black girl in Chicago being inspired by that piece. In the Thomas home, we only get a glimpse at a torn piece of that iconic portrait. The Daltons, on the other hand, own a large framed painting by Sherald called The Make Believer (Monet's Garden).
In Mary Dalton’s bedroom, the viewer can also see a framed photograph of the Obamas on what appears to be Inauguration Day in 2009, positioned near her bed. She also proudly displays a copy of Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama on her nightstand. “There’s this juxtaposition and incongruences of class that I think lends itself to the conversation. There’s a broader conversation,” McKenzie theorized. “In the black community in Chicago, the Obamas are like royalty, so we see depictions of them throughout the black community. But in Mary Dalton’s bedroom, there’s Barack Obama's first memoir. People are observing the same things but having different reactions to them.”