“It was exciting to have the opportunity to take a story that so many people have read, that was written in 1939, and to think about how it lives in our current state and in our current time,” says “Native Son” director Rashid Johnson about the HBO telefilm that premiered on April 6. It’s a modern update of the novel by Richard Wright, who explored the black experience 80 years ago in ways that are still relevant today. Watch our exclusive video interview with Johnson and co-star Sanaa Lathan above.
“Native Son” is the story of Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders), a young black man living in Chicago whose world turns upside down after he’s hired as a driver for a wealthy white family. The script was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and her updating the text to the present day was “an opportunity to say what are the things that are the same,” Johnson explains. “And there are quite a few things that are the same and that’s in some ways quite frustrating and quite sad.”
Lathan plays Bigger’s mother Trudy, and what affected her about the role was that Trudy is “every mother who wants for her son to thrive and to live a good life. Specifically, I had in my heart all the black mothers in America today who have to kind of catch their breath every time they see their black boys leave the house because of the climate we live in.”
Johnson is tackling such complex themes from such well known source material that it might be surprising to learn that this is actually his feature filmmaking debut, though he’s certainly not a first-time artist. He’s well known as a conceptual visual artist, and he credits his cast and crew for the relative ease of his transition, including Lathan and her co-stars KiKi Layne, Nick Robinson and Margaret Qualley, as well as cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Black Swan,” “A Star is Born“).
But Lathan credits Johnson for having such a strong creative point of view. His artistic background gave her “confidence in him as a first-time director, and I was right.”
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