A still from Native Son, directed by Rashid Johnson with production design by Akin McKenzie (courtesy HBO, photo by Matthew Libatique)

In his new film Native Son, first-time director Rashid Johnson offers a bold, modern-day take on Richard Wright’s classic novel published in 1940. Set in Chicago and adapted for the screen by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Susan-Lori Parks, lead character Bigger Thomas — played by Moonlights Ashton Sanders in an understated performance — takes a life-changing step up the socioeconomic ladder when the wealthy Dalton family hires him as their full-time driver. But as Bigger adjusts to his new life in the ultra-rich white world the Daltons inhabit, things take a sharp turn, sending his life into turmoil.

Johnson, a conceptual artist himself, had an art-heavy vision for the film and it was production designer Akin McKenzie’s job to help execute it. Throughout the film, McKenzie strategically places the work of several prominent Black visual artists in what he calls his “environments.” From Glenn Ligon to Michelle Obama’s official portraitist Amy Sherald to Kara Walker, the paintings dance between background and foreground in several key moments in the story. The striking juxtapositions between the art and the characters in the frame elevate these contemporary works to supporting characters in the film. Combined with the cinematography of Matthew Libatique, the result is a lush visual language that feels like a complete aesthetic reimagining of Wright’s 20th-century source material.

Just before Native Son premiered over the weekend, I caught up with McKenzie, whose television and film credits include HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness and High Maintenance, shorts for the rappers Jay-Z and Common, and the critically acclaimed Paul Dano film Wildlife. In our conversation he shares what inspires him as a designer and how the visual art in Native Son both heightens the visual impact of the story and invites us to reexamine our perceptions of its characters.

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A still from Native Son (courtesy HBO, photo by Matthew Libatique)

Beandrea July: After you studied film at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), you worked in production at a major network. Later, you made a transition to get back into the creative side of filmmaking. Tell us how you found your way to production design.

Akin McKenzie: It is very easy to get out of school and enter the industry and feel unfulfilled. More than likely, you enter the industry in a very low position. I wanted to try something new and New York represented that for me. I found that I could be satisfied creatively by experiencing new things and that became working in a wood shop and working with tools, and that evolved into designing storefront windows and styling auctions at Christie’s auction house. Allowing myself to be in close proximity with beautiful art and touch these pieces and style these pieces — it was good brain training for what I do now. It’s appreciating the beauty and how layering and texturing can create a story.

BJ: How do you describe yourself in terms of your aesthetic as a production designer and what are some of your biggest influences?

Akin McKenzie (image courtesy the artist)

AM: As a designer I am very story-based and I’m very detail-based. Another thing that’s very important to me is the respect of those worlds and the respect comes from the richness of detail. For example, if there are missing floor tiles in a house, you could see a film where that is described as a feeling of decay, but to me it would be more interesting to put the floor mat over that so you see the indentation but you also see some human being who is trying to uplift their home and putting love into it. They put the mat over it to fix a problem. So those are the things that I like discovering. When I research references in photography and art, I look for that information and that is part of the respect I like to embed into the environments that I create.

BJ: It felt like a really strong collaboration among the director Johnson, the cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and yourself. How did you approach your work together?

AM: Deep conversations. Rashid’s background as an artist was incredible because I could speak with him about things that oftentimes I’ll be grappling with independently, like how color is going to influence these characters, and of course with Matty about how the color is going to affect his light and what emotional state will be enhanced by it.

BJ: It feels very intentional when the paintings show up in the frame. Could you talk about how you went about choosing the paintings in the film?

AM: We use a lot of Black iconography. These are the ancestors who came before us and people who have paved the way for the existence of and progression of people today and honoring them.  There are a lot of historical photographs of people that speak to the energy that we wanted to visualize. At the Dalton’s in particular, I think it is interesting to see him surrounded by this beautiful, elevated Black art and seeing the collection the Daltons have and then questioning Mr. Dalton and the Dalton family’s relationship with this art.

I don’t think this made it into the final film, but in Big’s sister’s room there’s Amy Sherald’s piece of Michelle Obama wripped from a magazine and pinned to a wall. Later, in the Dalton’s parlor, you see “The Make Believer” piece by Amy Sherald, the real artwork. Through the Daltons, Big gets to be exposed to and interact with these things in their actual form, and we’re all hoping that he can share a piece of that successfully.

BJ: The first painting that we get to focus on in the film is Glenn Ligon’s “Malcolm X (Version 1) #1” painting. It’s a non-traditional portraiture of Malcolm X with bright pink lips and the pop of color on a white background. Tell us about this piece.

AM: We wanted to place it in a moment where Big is trying to see how he fits into this world of the Daltons. There’s a breath there where he absorbs it and for Big it’s more of a curiosity of who these people are and how far their liberalism extends.

BJ: Rashid’s painting “Untitled Anxious Men” fit nicely in the scene where Bigger is waiting to be interviewed by the Daltons.

AM: Even if you’re not familiar with that piece, the energy is speaking to that feeling. Big is there flanked by this artwork that is both adding to the curiosity but also enhancing the anxiety.

(courtesy HBO, photo by Matthew Libatique)

BJ: I saw Native Son at its Sundance premiere, and upon my second watch of the film, I was struck by the two scenes when Mary Dalton goes up the stairs, which is when we see the Kara Walker cutout (“Untitled Karavan door panel”) on the wall.

AM: Yes, there’s a literal foreshadowing. She feels like this shadow. It is a stunning juxtaposition. You find Big there in that situation and again flanked by this artwork that has this voice of its own. We were trying to find that balance of wanting the artwork to be in symphony with the larger story we’re telling.

BJ: One of the most provocative choices in terms of the artwork was Deanna Lawson’s “Soweto Queen.” What do you think that piece brought to the film?

AM: It is a beautiful picture, but it is a picture into a world that is not the Dalton’s, so I think that expresses their curiosity and maybe is part of our understanding of how they see Big as a curiosity too.

BJ: The film takes place in Chicago and images of the Obamas appear throughout. Tell us about why it was important to include the Obamas as a reference in your design.

AM: It’s Chicago and the Obamas are like royalty. Who has what is also a conversation, so we see Michelle Obama in Big’s family’s house. In the Dalton house, Mary has Dreams of my Father in her bedroom. Maybe how we’re appreciating them is different, but certainly they felt comfortable in most of our spaces and even how they’re presented changes the frame that they’re in. What is the choice of the photograph? Is it at the Inauguration? Is it just a photo of Michelle Obama now? That conversation on all these different socioeconomic levels is very interesting.

BJ: What do you think is the significance overall of having this much emphasis on visual art in the production?

AM: Art, in general, is certainly an easy way to show how people both express themselves and how they would like the world to perceive them. It’s one of the simplest, clearest ways to open up this projection of self and then we can judge the authenticity of it. So with the Daltons we know that they are interested in projecting this energy, but then it’s up to the viewer to judge what level of truth that represents. So all of this is not speaking to just hit one tone and tenor, but it’s to give you a larger breadth of the potential of these people. We are showing the depth and the individualism and the agency of human beings and allowing ourselves to understand their complexities.

Native Son is now available on HBO.

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Beandrea July (@beandreadotcom) is a freelance writer and cultural critic based in Los Angeles.