Rashid Johnson and Sanaa Lathan on the Painful Relevance of Native Son

By Bradford William Davis

Director Rashid Johnson and actress Sanaa Lathan discuss the relevant themes and personal experiences that shaped their modern translation of Richard Wright’s 1939 novel.

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An adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic book, Rashid Johnson’s film Native Son translates the fears common to its era for a modern context. Through the lens of protagonist Bigger Thomas’ (Ashton Sanders), Johnson explores how race and class can rob young Black men of their choices, and how that absence of choice alters their self-perception. Johnson and Sanaa Lathan, who plays Bigger’s mother, Trudy, spoke to HBO about the story’s enduring poignancy and the influences that helped them craft the upcoming film.

HBO: Why is Native Son relevant today? What issues are we still dealing with?

Rashid Johnson: Native Son is interesting because it’s a story written by Richard Wright in 1939, but it’s a story so many of us know today. Even folks that haven’t read it know something about the story and how it functions in a contemporary conversation. So for me, the question becomes what has changed and what has remained the same. The psychological space that Bigger finds himself confronted by and challenged by in 1939 still makes sense to talk about in 2019. It’s always a good reason to tell that kind of story.

Sanaa Lathan: It is a story about what institutionalized racism does to us unconsciously. Unfortunately, it’s something we still have to deal with in our everyday life in America. As much as the world has changed, so many things have not, especially with race.

HBO: You included numerous literary allusions, including Invisible Man, in the opening frame. What were you trying to say with those choices?

Rashid Johnson: A lot of this is my personal reading list — things I’m reading and ideas that impacted me. I included books that help tell the story and illustrate what’s happening in Bigger’s mind. I wanted Bigger to read The Sellout in part because Paul Beatty represents a younger voice in Black literary thought. Other references come into play, like Invisible Man, or even Bigger’s citing of W.E.B.’s DuBois double consciousness. The books may not be the focus of every frame but it gives you insight into Bigger’s perspective.

HBO: How did your experience as a visual artist prepare you to direct this movie?

Rashid Johnson: Though it didn’t exactly prepare me, it taught me a sense of detail. I work in detail through much of my artwork, and that experience helped me to fill the frames with added purpose. Also practicing art gave me confidence in my own abilities when working towards a feature-length film.

HBO: How has your relationship with Native Son changed as an adult?

Sanaa Lathan: Though I read it when I was about 14, I actually didn’t reread before we started filming because I wanted it to approach everything with Rashid’s vision for the retelling. It’s different in significant ways. Even my character has a name, Trudy, that Rashid added. It’s short for Gertrude, a reference to Hamlet's mother. That’s something I didn’t even know going into filming, I found out while the movie was being screened at Sundance. I wanted to make sure I didn’t come in with too many assumptions.

But one of the things I’ve come to notice, especially as a Black woman, is how much this story matters to me as an adult. The fear and pain of having a child and knowing that child can be taken from you is exactly what Trudy feels, and now, is something I feel even more intimately.

Scenes From the Native Son Red Carpet

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