'Native Son' director Rashid Johnson takes his responsibility as a black filmmaker very seriously

With screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks, Johnson engages audiences in a conversation about black identity and its complexities.
Image: Director Rashid Johnson poses for a portrait at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25, 2019 in Utah.
Director Rashid Johnson poses for a portrait at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25, 2019 in Utah.Taylor Jewell / Invision / AP file

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By Candice Frederick

Director Rashid Johnson has always been fascinated by images of blackness and black masculinity, more specifically how they’ve been portrayed and politicized — sometimes to their detriment.

It’s why in the opening moments of "Native Son," his new film which aired Sunday night on HBO, the camera focuses on the charcoal-painted nails, silver rings, dark skin and green hair of the black male protagonist (Ashton Sanders) and the gun he lays down on a copy of Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man." Johnson is forcing us to look at a cataclysm of images that have rarely been applied to black men on screen — and abandon all judgment.

“This is an opportunity to interrogate what and how we have consistently imagined or explored through a black character on screen, especially a protagonist,” Johnson told NBCBLK. “What kept coming to mind was this character who in some ways is an outsider, but in some ways quite familiar because most black folks in my sphere are keenly aware of brothers who don’t necessarily fit the description that we’re often given of what a black man is. I think it’s important that we start to explore the diversity of black representation in film.”

Johnson’s eagerness to engage with audiences in a conversation around black identity and complexity is also what propelled him and screenwriter Suzan Lori-Parks to reimagine certain elements of the original Richard Wright novel.

A still from HBO's "Native Son."Matthew Libatique / HBO

The book tells the story of Bigger Thomas (Sanders), a young, poor black man in 1930s Chicago who accidentally suffocates the daughter of his new white employer, and then while on the run he rapes and kills his frightened girlfriend. But the movie takes place in the present day and focuses on Bigger as a more pensive figure, someone who’s hyper aware of the world around him though he doesn’t really engage with it. Only through narration do we learn about his anxieties around his blackness, how it’s shunned by some of his friends, politicized in the news, and a source of fascination for his white boss, Mr. Dalton (Bill Camp), and his daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley).

This sense of uncertainty was precisely what struck the filmmaker when he first read the book years ago.

“I think in some ways, it was the first time I had ever seen a black male protagonist talk about his own fear or the idea of being scared and what that looked like for him,” he recalled.

So Johnson decided to focus on the sociopolitical questions and expectations that Bigger is confronting — without undercutting Wright’s thesis. He retained the storyline of Bigger asphyxiating Mary (and burning her body in the furnace in her house) but omitted the rape and murder of Bessie (Kiki Layne). In the film, the protagonist starts choking the latter in a fit of rage in the devastating final moments until he suddenly lets her go before she runs away from him.

“The removal of the rape and murder of Bessie was a difficult decision because I didn’t want to take away the responsibility that Bigger has and how he is interacting with the world,” Johnson explained. “But as we were contemporizing the story and thinking about what was important about it today, there were aspects of class and race that we were trying to explore that we felt would have been hijacked if Bigger had raped and murdered Bessie. We could no longer have that as touchstones for what the film is suggesting.”

Though he decided to remove that aspect of Bessie’s story from the film, Johnson remains committed to amplifying black female perspectives on screen and giving them agency so that they’re not just conditions of the black male protagonist.

“I take that responsibility really seriously,” he said. “Moving forward as a storyteller, I will be even more effective in making sure that I come with an understanding of the women’s perspective. It’s important when you have communities that have had their voices muted throughout time. Just because I am of that community in one respect, being my blackness, doesn’t mean that I don’t need to be aware of the struggle and adversities that women and people in the LGBTQ community have faced. My cognizance of those spaces, and consequentially how my stories navigate those spaces, is tremendously important to me.”

Johnson is acutely aware of the space he occupies as a black filmmaker telling black stories that are as much revered as they are interrogated for their cultural statements. It’s a standard he struggles with as a storyteller who also wants to challenge the audience to see beyond perspectives that have been traditionally offered.

“This idea of expectation is so deeply complicated because I think in some respects, black artists are held responsible for how we represent black authenticity, which can sometimes keep us from exploring our complexity,” he said. “We need to be telling stories that explore the black psychology and black existentialism because that is part of our experience as well. Our experience is not exclusively in response to whiteness. We have a responsibility to each other to be aware of how our actions and behavior reflect on those around us. So, it’s a really complicated and difficult negotiation. But we need to be telling complicated and difficult stories about ourselves.”

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