Rashid Johnson has moved from the museum to the movie theater.
HBO Films snapped up the American artist’s directorial debut, Native Son, just hours ahead of its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday. The cable network bought the film from production company A24 for a reported eight-figure sum. It will air on HBO later this year.
Johnson joins a small group of visual artists who have made the leap to mainstream film, with varying results. While artist-filmmakers Steve McQueen and Julian Schnabel have created acclaimed big-budget movies alongside their art, feature films by Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo were largely considered flops.
Native Son is based on the 1940 novel of the same name by Richard Wright. It explores systemic racism in 1930s Chicago through the story of a young black man from the city’s South Side, Bigger “Big” Thomas.
In Johnson’s retelling, Big (played by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders) is a green-haired, leather jacket-wearing punk who, in the throes of an existential crisis, takes a job as a driver for a wealthy Chicago family. He moves into their mansion and begins to chauffeur the family’s daughter, Mary, a diehard progressive oblivious to her own privilege, around town. As in the novel, when a drug-fueled adventure results in an accidental death, the film’s protagonist has to face off against powerful social forces, and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end well.
The film’s screenplay was written by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Native Son has inspired a number of adaptations, including a 1941 play and two other film versions (one from 1951 by the French filmmaker Pierre Chenal, in which Wright himself played the lead role, and another from 1986 by Jerrold Freeman, featuring Oprah Winfrey as Big’s mother).
So far, the critical reception to Johnson’s film has been mixed. A critic for the Playlist lauded Johnson’s “eye-popping talent as a filmmaker,” but disparaged some “awkward” choices, including an “all-over-the-place” performance by the film’s star. Elsewhere, Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman deems Native Son “a drama of vibrant moodiness.”
The biggest reaction from the crowd at the P&I screening of #NativeSon may have been at the very beginning: laughter at how the HBO Films logo appeared at the beginning despite the HBO purchase happening just hours before. They work fast! #Sundance
— Christian Blauvelt (@ctblauvelt) January 25, 2019
The film produced by A24 and Bow & Arrow is expected to premiere on HBO later this year.
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