(Screened at the Sundance Film Festival; HBO Films will release it later this year)
Little had to be changed about the plot of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son to make it work with an adaptation set in the present, but something must have been lost in translation. As directed by first-timer Rashid Johnson (a respected Chicago artist) from a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks (Girl 6), the story’s crucial event and its immediate aftermath come across as implausible, even unintentionally funny. The film doesn’t recover from that clumsiness; the good news is that it doesn’t happen till over an hour in. Everything up to that point is smooth sailing, particularly the lead performance by Ashton Sanders (who played the teenage Chiron in Moonlight) as Bigger “Big” Thomas, a skinny, quiet black punk rocker who also loves Beethoven and marijuana, eschews politics, and resists a friend’s urging to join him in a robbery because he doesn’t want to do that “stereotypical Negro” stuff but carries around a gun that belonged to his late father. Big takes a job as a driver for wealthy businessman Henry Dalton (Bill Camp), the sort of well-meaning white liberal who gives to the NAACP and makes sure to mention it, and ends up chauffeuring Dalton’s college-age daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), to parties with her political activist boyfriend (Nick Robinson). Watching Big navigate this different world is compelling because he’s a compelling character — deliberate, smart, by turns responsible and reckless, hard to categorize — and the film’s too-brief exploration of race and class is interesting as far as it goes. But perhaps it ought to have gone further, as the intended message about the expectations placed upon black men doesn’t make impact, overshadowed by the melodrama of the third act.