Pulitzer Prize winning Topdog/Underdog playwright (not to mention playwright of 365 Plays/365 Days, which is exactly what it sounds like) Suzan-Lori Parks is writing a screen adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, which will be directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson. Native Son is the feature directorial debut for Johnson, who just became the first artist in four decades appointed to the Guggenheim Museum’s board of trustees, and who’s known for his works that often, per the artist, mine the “complexity and contradictions” of racialized perception and experience.
As he tells Artnet News, Johnson conceived of the project, and then enlisted Parks to write, with Bow and Arrow’s Matthew Perniciaro and Michael Sherman producing. In the announcement on that website, he cites Spike Lee, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini and Woody Allen as directors that’ve inspired him, and tells the publication of how the he first read the book in his teens, then returned to it in his 30s. “It just stayed on my mind,” he says, “the idea of an incredibly complicated black character and investigating his incredibly difficult… circumstances in a world that was also kind of pitted against him.”
Johnson hails from Chicago (he also first rose to prominence start in that city’s art scene), where Native Son is likewise set. The three-part novel follows 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, a black Chicago resident during the Great Depression. Mired by feelings of social immobility, he engages in crime, before becoming a chauffeur for a white family with real estate monopoly in Chicago’s south side, where they’re earning their immense wealth by exploiting and raising rents on black residents. Racialized tensions percolate until a series of horrific acts of violence are set in motion.
Native Son certainly has a legacy in American canon, and was the first best-selling novel by a black author in America. It was widely read enough that James Baldwin’s first nonfiction book was titled Notes on a Native Son — in which the author, in the essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” vehemently critiqued Wright’s book for what he saw as stereotypical and harmful characterization. In a piece about Baldwin’s objections to the novel, Ayana Mathis wrote in the New York Times, “[Wright’s] characters were purposely exaggerated, in part to elicit a white audience’s sympathy and to shock it into racial awareness and political action.” She wondered, though, “where does that leave his black subjects?” Baldwin also happens to have been Suzan-Lori Parks’ mentor — and she credits him for having led to her playwriting career.
The compelling idea of a collaborative vision of this controversial novel — with the prospect of Parks’ viscously exquisite writing (and her relationship likely both to Native Son and Notes on a Native Son) and Johnson’s direction — should put this project on everyone’s radar.