“Nobody in this film gets away scot-free,” says Nick Robinson about “Native Son,” HBO‘s modern update of Richard Wright‘s classic but controversial 1940 novel about Big (Ashton Sanders), a young black man in Chicago and the tragic turn his life takes after he’s hired by a wealthy white family. “Everyone is kind of a victim and a villain, and they’re all complicit in what happens,” Robinson adds. Those are the “conversations that should be happening” when people see the film. Watch our exclusive video interview with Robinson and his co-star Margaret Qualley above.
Qualley plays Mary, the liberal daughter of wealthy Henry Dalton (Bill Camp), and Robinson plays her activist boyfriend Jan. They’re the kinds of “woke” characters who discuss social justice but clearly haven’t checked their own privilege, and they don’t seem to be aware of the compromising positions they put Big in. “I think it’s relatively easy as a white person and therefore a privileged person in America to walk through life without necessarily seeing the effects of systemic racism,” Qualley explains. “There’s a lot to unpack there, and it’s very nuanced and subtle.”
The screenplay was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and the film was directed by Rashid Johnson, a conceptual artist making his feature film debut. What Qualley appreciated about their approach to these thorny themes of race, class and crime is that “they manage to tell the story without really giving any answers. They just asked a lot of questions” and challenged viewers to make their own moral determinations.
Johnson actually advised Robinson and Qualley not to read the original novel before making the film so they could bring a fresh perspective to it. Robinson did read the book afterwards, however. “It’s a doozy,” he reveals. “I would recommend it to anyone who wants to feel like they’ve been punched in the face multiple times. It’s hard to read, and so was the script. It’s not a passive viewing experience at all.” You can experience it for yourself when it premieres on April 6 on HBO.
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