Native Son’s distribution trajectory from film festival darling to straight-to-HBO oblivion is a curious, but increasingly familiar path. As with other recent A24 acquisitions like Under the Silver Lake and The Hole in the Ground, Native Son earned some immediate critical buzz out of film festivals like Sundance but was ultimately quietly shoveled off to home distribution & little accompanying fanfare. For its initial half hour, I mostly understood that decision. The film starts off as a fairly standard Sundance Drama™ about a listless teen protagonist who’s struggling with solidifying his identity and his place in the modern world. However, the final hour of that drama is a different beast entirely. Once Native Son ratchets up the dramatic tension of its central crisis, it transforms into an incredibly tense nightmare with thunderously discomforting things to say about race and class in America. If you afford it your patience, it gradually reveals itself as a picture that cannot be easily dismissed – if not only for the toll it leaves on your blood pressure – no matter how quietly it was siphoned off to television by its distributor.
Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders stars as a punk rock Chicagoan bike messenger who feels out of step with his local black community because of his D.I.Y. anarchist values and the absence of his deceased father. Rejecting the riskier (and less-than-legal) money-making schemes of his peers but in desperate need of cash to help support his family, he takes a job as a chauffer for a wealthy white family in a drastically different corner of Chicago. As soon as he steps foot in that mansion the film transforms into an incredibly tense thriller with no possible positive outcome for a character we naturally like but can’t prevent from making life-destroying decisions. It’s like watching a version of Get Out with all the tension-deflating humor & genre thrills removed, leaving the audience on the verge of screaming out in warning just so that someone says something to this lost soul before he loses what little he has. His relationships with his mother, his friends, his siblings, and his girlfriend (If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne, another Barry Jenkins alum) all register as standard film festival fodder, but the intensity of any scene where he is subject to the whims, power, and boredom of his white employers makes Native Son feel like a white-knuckle thriller that won’t be satisfied until it chokes the life out of America’s most shameful ills.
Native Son is both elevated and hindered by its literary source material, a 1940s novel that has maintained a disturbing level of relevance over the decades. The lofty dialogue that derives from that source both affords the film the operatic heights of a stage play Tragedy and opens it up to some fairly eyeroll-worthy inner-monologue narration that dampers the full potential of its tension & poetry. As vague & empty as that narration can be, Sanders is generally excellent in the role – especially in how he performatively deepens his voice to sound like an authoritative man instead of the vulnerable child that he truly is. His performance and the tension of his employment under a family outside his character’s social boundaries even lead the film to some truly harrowing places. The titular novel, then, mostly becomes just one component of a larger cache of allusions to black art that the film gathers while sketching out the persona of its young punk protagonist: Brad Brains, DEATH, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, etc. Native Son does eventually work its way up to joining the artistic themes & ambitions of those sources of inspiration; you just have to give it time to break free from its Sundance Drama beginnings to evolve into a full-blown American nightmare. I guess A24 assumes most of its potential audience just won’t have that patience. Honestly, they’re probably right, but it’s still always frustrating to see these solid festival-circuit indies fade so quickly into digital streaming obscurity.