Director Rashid Johnson speaks on stage before HBO’s ‘Native Son’ screening at Guggenheim Museum on April 1, 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Slaven Vlasic (Getty Images for HBO)

A rock star of the modern art scene, Rashid Johnson has gained high marks for showcasing his multidisciplinary African-American style in his work, which includes painting, sculpture, photography, video and performance.

The award-winning, mixed-media artist (who has used bricks of Shea butter, vinyl recordings, elemental bronze sculptures and installation of books in his exhibits that are often described as post-black) is making his feature film directorial debut with a vibrant and visually stunning adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic novel Native Son, which premieres April 6 on HBO.

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This latest incarnation of the controversial story—surrounding the accidental death of a wealthy, white socialite at the hands of a black employee who wrestles with the reality of adulthood in the midst of a racially charged world—is not the same tried and true, sepia-toned period drama of the 1940 tome on which it’s based. Nor is it even like the two Broadway versions that bowed in the early 1940s. It’s not the critically panned 1951 film starring the critically-acclaimed author (as Bigger) either. And it certainly is not the 1986 big-screen treatment starring Oprah Winfrey and Victor Love that so many seem to have to forgotten.

This Native Son is set in modern-day Chicago with an expanded story and more visceral voice for protagonist Bigger Thomas, portrayed exceptionally well by Moonlight scene-stealer Ashton Sanders. He’s not your grandfather’s Bigger Thomas, either. What could be considered a brief character study of a black Gen-Zer, “Big” (as he is known) sports green hair, rocks out to hardcore punk music and has a gender-fluid fashion sensibility. He works as a bike messenger, feeds stray cats and enjoys Beethoven just as much as The Migos. His sexy hairstylist girlfriend, played by KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk), paints his fingernails. Johnson’s Bigger is a glimpse at what life is like for the post-millennial young adults in inner-city Chicago today.

In one scene, Bigger tells a buddy about how he didn’t want to be a part of “no lowest common denominator, stereotypical negro shit” when a burglary is proposed as a quick means to easy cash.

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It’s prose like this that exemplify how Suzan-Lori Parks—the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Topdog/Underdog and the Tony Award-winning revival of Porgy & Bess—delivers in top form with her first feature-film screenwriter credit since the 2005 ABC telepic adaptation of the Zora Neale Hurston novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Parks’ first credit as a screenwriter was Spike Lee’s Girl 6 in 1996.)

The Root caught up to Rashid Johnson during promotional rounds for the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The Root: Why this story? Why now? What attracted you to the piece?

Rashid Jones: You know, I’ve always been really interested in this story. This is a story that my mother introduced to me when I was a younger man, when I was about 15 years old. She gave it to me with the caveat that it was a story that she thought was important, but that she thought was ultimately tragic and in a lot of ways, really problematic.

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That was the beginning of my relationship with Richard Wright’s work. I read Black Boy soon thereafter, but it was also the beginning of my relationship with Bigger Thomas and Native Son.

As to why now, I think ultimately, this is as good a time as any. We’re living in a time where we’re negotiating a lot of circumstances that kind of provoke a certain kind of anxiety and fear in communities of color.

I think that this is ultimately quite a bit of what Richard Wright was talking about in Native Son, and experiences that Bigger himself was facing aren’t totally dissimilar from experiences that people are feeling subject to right now.

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TR: As a renowned artist and sculptor and photographer, was feature film a goal? Did you think this would be your next step outside of what you’ve been mastering?

RJ: Film always felt like a possibility for me. I originally went to Columbia College in Chicago to definitely study both film and photography, as well as painting and sculpture. But I didn’t get into a film class early, and I got adopted by the painters and the photographers, and I stayed in that space for quite a while. All through that time, I was always invested in narrative storytelling, invested in how film functioned, and what was possible within the confines of film.

I always knew, to some degree, that I would like to make something. I didn’t know what the possibility for me doing it was, but I always knew I was in some ways headed in this direction. It doesn’t feel like an evolution, it just feels kind of like, part of my larger story.

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TR: How did Native Son, the film, happen for you?

RJ: It’s something that I kind of brought up to friends over the years, just kind of hinting that this would be a project that I’d be interested in participating with, and ultimately directing. Eventually someone kind of overheard and introduced me then to some agents and some folks who were excited to see how they could help me push the project forward. From there, I was introduced to some producers who were excited about my vision for the project.

Ultimately, I was introduced to the writer who I was excited to meet with, which is Suzan-Lori Parks. She agreed to help me transform the story into one that we could view in the contemporary context. The pieces just began to kind of fall into place. It more or less began with my interest in telling this story in contemporary terms and then finding folks in my community and outside of my community who were invested in and as interested in it as I was in bringing this story to life.

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TR: It definitely has a contemporary flair. Was that always your goal? If so, why?

RJ: Initially it was that it had to be contemporary. I think that the story has been retold as far as kind of illustrating what Wright brought to the page. I think we’ve seen that in a project that was done it the late ’80s, early ’90s. We see that to some degree in a project that Richard Wright participated in himself in the ’50s. I felt like that story had been brought to the screen to some degree in the way that we understood it.

My only interest in it was in thinking about it in contemporary terms and having the character Bigger exposed to the time that we’re currently living in and kind of feeling how he would function in this space. That’s always been something that I thought about when I read the book. I’ve always thought, how would I respond in a similar scenario based on the fact that I’m living in a different time? What gravity does this story still hold? What are the pieces and parts and parcels of this story that still holds to be truthful in a time where the obstacles can be viewed from the outside as being entirely different?

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TR: What a dynamic cast of characters. What went into your decision-making, specifically for the lead, Bigger?

RJ: I have to say, I honestly wanted the actor that I thought was gonna bring the character to life in the most effective way. I think that Ashton is one of, if not the most, dynamic young actors of color working today. Of any group, in all honesty. He makes incredible decisions as an actor. He’s thorough and rigorous and bright and thoughtful in the way that he brings character to life.

Ashton Sanders
Photo: Matthew Libatique (Courtesy of HBO)

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After seeing him in Moonlight and then seeing him in a few other things, I quickly realized, Oh, this is the young guy who really captures the spirit and strength and fragility and anxiety that I thought Bigger’s comments as a protagonist needed as far as his evolution though change. It was more a no-brainer. It was just my job at that point to get him as enthusiastic about playing the role as I was about having him play it.

TR: What was it like working with Suzan Lori-Parks?

RJ: Listen, when you get an opportunity and access to a genius like Suzan Lori-Parks, you just count your blessings, because she is a talent like no other. Our collaborative strategy was one that I think was really rewarding for me and I hope so for her as well. I listened and I learned. She’s not only brilliant in her contribution, but she’s brilliant in her ability to take on suggestions and to accommodate other people’s thinking.

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TR: We’re seeing many updated remakes, from A Star is Born, to SuperFly and … Native Son fits into this emulative arena now. What was it like? How was it working through the estate with some of the changes you’ve made to the original story?

RJ: Honestly, the best working relationship that we have with anyone on this film was our relationship with the Wright family that gave us access to an opportunity to tell and evolve this story. We contacted them early in the process and they were excited about working with us. I told them very early on about my ambition to contemporize the story and other aspects of the story that I knew we would ultimately want to change, and they embraced and enthusiastically pushed us towards making those changes.

TR: What are you hoping the new generation or filmgoers of any generation will take away with this one?

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RJ: That’s an interesting question and a complicated one. I think that this story gives us an opportunity to examine how systemic concerns around race, class, and gender, and stereotype, and expectation function. If it can, in any way, challenge their expectations for how a story from a different time can affect your life today, if it can effectively change their expectations for something like that, then I think we’ve been successful.