‘Native Son’ Director Rashid Johnson Wants to Celebrate Famous Black Artists by Reimagining Their Work

IndieWire | 4/12/2019 | Staff
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This is the second installment of “Breaking Black,” a new weekly column focused on emerging black talent.

Award-winning multidisciplinary artist Rashid Johnson’s thoughtful adaptation of Richard Wright’s landmark 1939 novel “Native Son” isn’t exactly the start of a franchise, but Johnson’s first feature exists on a continuum: The film represents his latest effort to reimagine a respected artwork.

Career - Johnson - Body - Work - Installations

While his filmmaking career is young, Johnson has amassed a body of work that includes installations and theatrical productions that all reflect a similar impulse. But with the A24-produced “Native Son” now on HBO, that impulse is reaching its largest audience to date.

Prior to “Native Son,” Johnson only had experience directing for the stage in far more experimental terms. In 2013, he revised Amiri Baraka’s award-winning controversial 1964 play “Dutchman” for the saunas at the Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th street in New York City. Anticipating the subject matter Johnson would tackle in adapting “Native Son,” Baraka’s play follows a lascivious young white woman who lures a young black man to his demise.


“Native Son”

“Part of the performance was that both the actors and the audience were subject to the conditions of the heat,” said Johnson of his “Dutchman” adaptation. “We tried to shoot some footage of the rehearsal, but the cameras we used were really struggling to capture footage in that environment, so at one point I decided that it was one of those performances where if you weren’t ever present for it then you’d just have to settle for hearing about it.”

Audiences - Word-of-mouth - Shows - Reviews - Theater

And audiences did certainly hear about it, as word-of-mouth led to sold out shows, despite mixed reviews by theater critics. For Johnson, who said he always aims for audience discomfort, his “Dutchman” represented the kind of freedom to think in unorthodox ways that has become his main priority.

“People have this...
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