“The music is such an important part of the storytelling and it becomes another character because of how unexpected it is.”
Sometimes your most authentic self is the thing that outsiders suspect is your biggest pose.
That's one of the central dilemmas facing Bigger Thomas (Moonlight's Ashton Sanders), the star of the new HBO film Native Son. While those around him ask what his favorite hip-hop acts are and test his street cred, the ambitious Bigger glides through life on his messenger bike while rocking a slogan-splashed, spiked leather motorcycle jacket, green hair, horn-rimmed spectacles and a fistful of skull rings while a classic punk rock soundtrack from the late 1970s/early '80s blasts in his head.
"I was mostly invested in hip-hop as a kid — Nas' Illmatic, The Pharcyde — that radical kind of sound while growing up in the early '90s in Chicago," first-time director Rashid Johnson tells Billboard about the inspiration for making Bigger a black punk whose London-circa-1978 look and playlist often sets him at odds with his best friend Gus (Lamar Johnson). At the same time as Johnson — best known as a visual artist — was digging into rap, he also knew punk kids who were, literally, "across the street" from his b-boy friends, always feeling a kinship with that other clique because he could feel that they were both embracing a counterculture that was meant to give voice to under- or misrepresented youth.
"As I was developing Bigger, I was thinking about what was going on in the mind of this young guy and thinking of what was going on across the street. … I knew a couple black punks then and they had a different way of being than a lot of us. They were complicated, taking chances and going against the grain and not falling into sterotypes." That's why one of the first scenes in the film finds Bigger snagging some milk from his mom's fridge and feeding it to stray cats as "Politicians in My Eyes" by proto-punk black Detroit sibling trio Death blares in the background. "The number one biggest game/ It's when they gain the most fame/ It's like the race to the top/ Because they wanna be boss," they howl.
Just like Johnson was back then, some of Bigger's pals are confused by his taste in music, a conflict the director says he wanted to highlight as a means of showing that Bigger faces dual obstacles — from those peers and from the box that white society needs to put him in — as he seeks to make his way in the world. Zooming across town on his messenger bike, Bigger lands in the passenger seat of mentor/weed supplier Jerod (Jack Harding) as "Police and Thieves" — the iconic reggae song that helped solidify his character — plays in the background.
In one of his first meetings with Johnson, Native Son music supervisor Howard Paar says they bonded over The Clash's classic punk cover of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves." Paar, a music industry veteran who worked with tons of iconic new wave/ska and punk bands in the early 1980s in Los Angeles as a club owner (ON Klub) before shifting to an A&R position at Polygram Records and then music supervising on films such as Diary of a Teenage Girl and Monster, experienced that initial wave of punk first-hand in his native England.
"I heard ['Police and Thieves'] when I was still in London and The Clash's first single came out, 'White Riot,' in 1977, and it was a total life-changer for me," says Paar; Johnson says he heard it as a seventh-grader many years later when messing around with his friend's dad's record collection. "When Rashid heard it, he said it also galvanized in him the idea to make Bigger a punk in the film, and when the conversation came to the idea of going to the more social/political punk stuff from the early days, naturally we talked about bands like Death, the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, The Germs." Iconic tracks from all those bands are sprinkled throughout the film, providing a kind of roiling inner-monologue for Bigger as he navigates his way through his chosen world and his unexpected new day job as a driver for an ultra-wealthy white Chicago power broker and his family.
Once they decided to make Bigger a punk in the script penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Johnson says he "went down a rabbit hole" of exploring the genre, with Paar as his spirit guide in understanding the context of some of the bands from that era. The key for him was making sure the tracks they chose were authentic to Bigger, but also displayed the character's deep, pure relationship with the music. "The music is part of his inner-monologue and it gives us a tour of what's in his head, helps you know what some of his themes and concerns are," says Johnson, noting that using the Dead Kennedys anthem "Kill the Poor" — about rich right-wingers using neutron bombs to eliminate the underprivildged — felt like a "real signifier" during a scene where Bigger is transporting his boss' privileged daughter and boyfriend in the family's luxury SUV. The film also features an eerie, synth-heavy score from Survive, the group responsible for the haunting soundtrack to Netflix's Stranger Things.
"This is it. This is the dichotomy, the complexity of all those points converging," the director says. Mostly, Johnson says he had never really seen a black protagonist like Bigger in a film before, one who is invested in a style of music that helps signify his outsider status while also upending expectations for a young black man. Paar made sure to sprinkle in some songs by contemporary acts, such as Leon Bridges, A Tribe Called Quest, Jamie Principle and, in a nod to the 1940 Richard Wright novel the film and its title were inspired by, a track by rapper Richard Wright ("Smash").
"When you hear hip-hop in the film, it seems jarring, because obviously these are ways of — it not stereotyping people, then obviously making Bigger an outsider in many respects, intellectually and otherwise," says Paar. And while he and Johnson had a blast picking the tunes and throwing ideas back and forth, one track Paar was "hellbent" on getting in there was a cover of the 1977 ska jam "Uptown Top Ranking" by newcomers Kossisko and Rainy Milo. "I wanted to give Bigger and [girlfriend] Bessie [Kiki Layne] a nice musical moment before everything goes completely downhill," he says of the tender moment the couple share at a house party before Bigger's life explodes in the film's shocking second half.
Bigger also flouts conventional expectations by cranking some Beethoven symphonies in the car, even as Johnson and Paar were flipping through the anarchic, louder songs that help bring this complex character to life. "Howard really just helped me breathe more life into how we could break some of this stuff down," Johnson says. "The music is such an important part of the storytelling and it becomes another character because of how unexpected it is. … This is not what you think about when you think of a canonized black literary piece. A black protagonist listening to Minor fucking Threat? It's really creating these incredible dichotomies and just opening up different parts of the brain."