HBO Instantly Snapped Up Artist Rashid Johnson’s Directorial Debut ‘Native Son’ at Sundance

The artist's film, an adaptation of Richard Wright's famous 1940 novel of the same name, will debut on HBO later this year.

Ashton Sanders appears in Native Son by Rashid Johnson, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Matthew Libatique, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Rashid Johnson has moved from the museum to the movie theater.

HBO Films snapped up the American artist’s directorial debut, Native Son, just hours ahead of its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday. The cable network bought the film from production company A24 for a reported eight-figure sum. It will air on HBO later this year.

Johnson joins a small group of visual artists who have made the leap to mainstream film, with varying results. While artist-filmmakers Steve McQueen and Julian Schnabel have created acclaimed big-budget movies alongside their art, feature films by Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo were largely considered flops. 

Native Son is based on the 1940 novel of the same name by Richard Wright. It explores systemic racism in 1930s Chicago through the story of a young black man from the city’s South Side, Bigger “Big” Thomas.

In Johnson’s retelling, Big (played by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders) is a green-haired, leather jacket-wearing punk who, in the throes of an existential crisis, takes a job as a driver for a wealthy Chicago family. He moves into their mansion and begins to chauffeur the family’s daughter, Mary, a diehard progressive oblivious to her own privilege, around town. As in the novel, when a drug-fueled adventure results in an accidental death, the film’s protagonist has to face off against powerful social forces, and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end well. 

Rashid Johnson speaks onstage at the Native Son Premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by George Pimentel/Getty Images.

The film’s screenplay was written by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Native Son has inspired a number of adaptations, including a 1941 play and two other film versions (one from 1951 by the French filmmaker Pierre Chenal, in which Wright himself played the lead role, and another from 1986 by Jerrold Freeman, featuring Oprah Winfrey as Big’s mother). 

So far, the critical reception to Johnson’s film has been mixed. A critic for the Playlist lauded Johnson’s “eye-popping talent as a filmmaker,” but disparaged some “awkward” choices, including an “all-over-the-place” performance by the film’s star. Elsewhere, Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman deems Native Son “a drama of vibrant moodiness.”

The film produced by A24 and Bow & Arrow is expected to premiere on HBO later this year.

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