“I think this is controversial subject matter, and it’s definitely going to open up the conversation to what it really is to be black in America,” says Ashton Sanders about the new HBO telefilm “Native Son,” based on the landmark 1940 novel by Richard Wright. The story explores “why we’re faced with these anxieties, these pressures, and this fear to be black, almost this shame to be black in America in 2019.” Watch our exclusive video interview with Sanders and his co-star KiKi Layne above.
The novel told the story of a young black man, Bigger Thomas, growing up in Chicago and facing tragedy after he takes a job with a wealthy white family. The film updates the story to the 21st century with Sanders playing Bigger and Layne playing his girlfriend Bessie, but it’s surprising how much of the story still applies 80 years later. Layne feels “Native Son” is “just as relevant” in 2019 as it was in 1940. “We’re discussing the fears and anxieties black people experience on a daily basis just moving through life,” she adds, so she’s gratified “to hear from audience members that they could feel that anxiety.”
Both actors had breakthrough roles in Barry Jenkins movies — Sanders in “Moonlight” (2016) and Layne in “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018) — but they had already known each other for years before that since they both studied drama at Chicago’s DePaul University. Being connected to the city in that way gave the film even greater significance for them.
“We play against the stereotypes of young black people in Chicago,” Layne explains. “Usually when talking about young black people from Chicago, it’s a very different narrative, a very specific narrative, the same narrative over and over” about lawlessness and chaos. But screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks and director Rashid Johnson “created these human characters and got to those deeper things that we all struggle with.”
“Honestly, I feel like if we’re making people feel any type of way as artists then we did our jobs,” says Sanders. “We did what we had to do on the canvas, and it’s up for interpretation.” The film premieres on Saturday night, April 6, when you can interpret it for yourself.
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