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Rashid Johnson & Sanaa Lathan on the Cultural Relevance of ‘Native Son’

Rashid Johnson & Sanaa Lathan on the Cultural Relevance of 'Native Son'

Director Rashid Johnson and actress Sanaa Lathan spoke to EBONY about making the film  Native Son for HBO, and the importance of modernizing Richard Wright’s classic and complicated novel.

“We wanted to stay true to as much of the story as we could while being aware of telling [it] in a contemporary time and with an awareness of some of the sensitivities and some of the criticisms of the story,” Johnson said of the film, his directorial debut. “We didn’t change the story necessarily to alleviate the tension of some of those criticisms, but having interpreted it after being aware of them were things that we were really quite conscious of in the process.”

Wright’s novel was the first best-seller by an African-American, but it was controversial for its depiction of the protagonist Bigger Thomas as an overly violent and sex-obsessed Black man from Chicago and how he responded to oppression.  Fellow iconic writer James Baldwin criticized the book for perpetuating the negative stereotypes that plagued Black Americans.

Although the novel was  published in 1940, is still culturally relevant today in light of the landscape of the Black Lives Matter movement and how marginalized groups are still fighting against White supremacy. Johnson and Lathan went on to discuss why the HBO feature film is pertinent to today’s audience.

“The book was originally written in 1939, and the telling of that story today .  . . is still quite relevant,” the director said. “There are still aspects of [it] that so much make sense today, it is somewhat quite scary.”

“It’s sad,” Lathan said between uncomfortable laughs.

Johnson added, “It gave us an opportunity to think about what’s changed, but even moreso, it gave us an opportunity to think about so many of the things that are the same.”

Native Son is now available on the HBO cable network and its streaming platforms. Watch the full with Johnson and Lathan interview above.

Check out what actors Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne told EBONY about starring in this adaptation of Wright’s novel here.

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