Perhaps nobody plays misunderstood, nonconforming young men better or to more heart-wrenching effect than Ashton Sanders, whose last dramatic role was that of the teenage Chiron in Moonlight and whose next is as Bigger Thomas in the upcoming film adaptation of Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel, Native Son. In the new film, Sanders steps once again into the shoes of a young black man who is surrounded by violence but searching for a way to make a “true masterpiece” of himself.
The trailer for Native Son was released Thursday, following a critically praised premiere at the Sundance film festival earlier this year. It unfolds slowly, beginning with Big’s rejection of a life spent “robbing corner stores at gunpoint” in the South Side of Chicago, and a subsequent serendipitous offer to serve as the driver for the wealthy Henry Dalton (Bill Camp). He quickly becomes acquainted with Dalton’s rebellious daughter Mary, played by Margaret Qualley, despite the misgivings of his girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne). Soon enough, however, Big’s life spirals out of control: Mary goes missing and the blame is placed on him, spinning what began as an optimistic story of self-discovery into a tense dissection of race and class in America.
See the full trailer for Native Son, which debuts on HBO on April 6, below.
The film also stars Sanaa Lathan as Bigger’s mother and Nick Robinson as Mary’s boyfriend, Jan. It was helmed by the artist Rashid Johnson, in his directorial debut, and is based on a modernized screenplay adaptation of Wright’s novel by Suzan-Lori Parks, who became the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, in 2002, for her play Topdog/Underdog.
Native Son has been adapted several times before, in varying formats. In 1941, Wright and playwright Paul Green adapted the three-part novel for a stage production directed by Orson Welles; subsequent theater adaptations were produced in 2006 and 2014. Its first film adaptation was released in 1951 and starred Wright as Big, despite the fact that he was then several decades older than the character he’d written. More recently, in 1986, Victor Love played Big opposite Oprah Winfrey as his mother, Elizabeth McGovern as Mary, and Matt Dillon as Jan.