Why 'Native Son' filmmakers cut rape scene for 2019 audiences | News Coverage from USA

Why ‘Native Son’ filmmakers cut rape scene for 2019 audiences

Spoiler alert! Contains major plot points from Rashid Johnson’s adaptation of “Native Son,” which was acquired by HBO Films at the Sundance Film Festival. 

PARK CITY, Utah — This isn’t your mom’s “Native Son.” 

If you’ve ever taken a high-school English class, there’s a strong chance you’ve read Richard Wright’s 1940 literary classic, which explores systemic oppression and racism in 1930s Chicago through the eyes of a rebellious young black man named Bigger Thomas. 

Ashton Sanders (teenage Chiron in “Moonlight”) steps into the role for Rashid Johnson’s audacious modern retelling, playing “Big” as a reticent, green-haired hipster who prefers punk rock to Tupac. Eager to escape his poor neighborhood, Big takes a job driving an affluent couple and their college-age daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), whose attempts at wokeness are actually just coded racism. (“I live in my affluenza bubble and don’t even know what black people think about what’s going on,” she laments in complete seriousness to Big). 

To put it mildly, their casual friendship takes a turn for the worst when Big accidentally smothers Mary with a pillow after a drug-fueled night out. Fearing the consequences, Big drags her body to the basement and burns it in her family’s furnace – a disturbing scene that elicited screams and groans from audience members at the movie’s Sundance Film Festival premiere Thursday night. 

On the run from police days later, Big admits to his girlfriend, Bessie (“If Beale Street Could Talk” breakout KiKi Layne), that he killed Mary. She begins to cry and Big chokes her, only to let go moments later as the cops start closing in on him. 

It’s an emotional sucker-punch of a closing scene, but far less brutal than Wright’s “Native Son.” The novel ends with Big raping and murdering Bessie before he’s arrested and sentenced to death, which Johnson thought was a step too far for contemporary moviegoers, given the ongoing conversation around sexual assault. 

“We initially wrote it with Bessie’s death,” Johnson said. But “our intention was to give Bigger an opportunity to be both complicated and (empathetic) simultaneously, and that was just a step off of a cliff that didn’t allow us to tell the story in a (contemporary) way that we thought would facilitate conversation. Because that level of violence against women at this time in this narrative really would’ve hijacked some of the more fascinating topics that we begin to explore in this story.”

“It would’ve hijacked his character,” added screenwriter Suzan Lori-Parks. “That’s not who he is.” 

“Native Son” was produced by A24 and acquired by HBO Films Thursday, although distribution plans have not yet been announced. The film earned mixed reactions on Twitter, although praise was unanimous for Sanders’ and Layne’s performances. 

Robert Redford’s annual Sundance festival kicked off Thursday and runs through February 3. 

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