Decoding the Punk Look of Rashid Johnson’s ‘Native Son’ with Elizabeth Birkett

CRAFT CIRCUIT: Richard Wright‘s “Native Son” has been an American literary staple since the 1930s, and has been adapted multiple times for the stage and screen. In its latest reincarnation, “Native Son” takes place in modern Chicago, and updates Bigger Thomas and his story for a new audience. Rashid Johnson‘s adaptation has a distinct punk style that resonates with the audience and lingers long after the film is over. Each piece is carefully crafted in order to tell the story of its controversial lead, and those he’s surrounded by. Bigger Thomas’ (Ashton Sanders) signature look is comprised of an electric green hair, black painted nails, and edgy DIY jackets. His outfits scream rebellion, but they point to a bigger picture. In Johnson’s “Native Son,” we’re allowed to see black characters in a way we’re rarely able to see them.

Photo courtesy of HBO PR

We were able to speak with Elizabeth Birkett, the costume designer behind the looks of “Native Son.” With Birkett, we were able to discuss the meanings of the outfits of the film, the creative process, and the choices that were made from script to screen.

 

According to Birkett, director Rashid Johnson wanted the film to be set in modern times. “He wanted Ashton’s character Bigger Thomas to not be typical of how we see an African American kid today. How would he dress? Would he be a cliche or would he be his own person?” 

Birkett was really excited to be able to interpret Bigger Thomas’ character as a punk rebel kid from Chicago. She states that the choice to go with green hair was Johnson’s. She also cites inspirations from the eighties and nineties punk bands. A lot of her references were derived from the work of Derek Ridger, a photographer who captured English punks in the eighties. Ridger’s work showcases a lot of gender-bending, over-the-top street style. Bigger’s wardrobe mimics the punks of the past and embodies the DIY attitude. Bigger uses clothing as a means for self-expression, and as a way to free his emotions.

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“That’s why I liked Ashton’s suit in the movie. We wanted it to fit small like he kind of doesn’t fit in any kind of box, but also always having style, always putting his twist on it. I was inspired by Basquiat as well. He drew all over everything. He tagged up walls. He tagged up his own clothing. There’s a bunch of old sweaters where it’s just paint and doodles, all these bright colors. I wanted Bigger Thomas’ character to represent that visually. Through all of Bigger Thomas’ complexities, his only outlet was getting it out through art, through his clothes, through how he dressed, through writing on his jacket. The words on the jacket are from a punk band called A Band Called Death. They’re a black punk band based out of Detroit and a lot of the lyrics to some of their songs are written on the jacket.”

As the film progresses, Bigger’s clothes become more symbolic as the events of the film unravel. “His clothes get a little darker, a little more military, a little more “OK, I’m going to war…then, I’m in it now and there’s no turning back. His trench coat at the end has a target on the back because he is a target, and he already was a target. I wanted to say a lot with these clothes, the jacket, the writing on the jacket. There’s another scene that’s really brief where he’s wearing a t-shirt that says “Tomorrow.” It’s one of my favorites even though it’s just a t-shirt. This was his outlet and he was also suggesting subliminal messages as we all do the way he wore the clothes and the style of clothes.”

Photo Courtesy of HBO PR

For “Native Son,” Birkett made the majority of the outfits in the film herself. However, she enlisted artist James Concannon to write on Bigger’s jackets.

I wanted him to draw on the jackets because I believe that if I drew it out, it would be very different than someone whose whole vibe and aesthetic is punk. I wanted to pair Bigger Thomas with an artist whose work is kind of Basquiat-esque,  but not in an obvious way.”

To Birkett, costume design is a problem-solving process. For “Native Son,” she had limited time to prepare, and also faced the challenge of shooting in Cleveland as opposed to Chicago. Due to the location, there was less access to quality vintage shops. Fortunately, she was able to make it work.

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I guess that’s the fun part about being in costume design is it’s a lot of problem-solving. People really don’t think of fashion, they don’t think about it being complex. Illustrating outfits, it’s the whole mapping out what everyone is going to be wearing in the film is actually really an interesting process. It’s very psychological. You really have to get into character. How would this character dress?”

For the sake of the film, Birkett primarily focused on the script and separated from the book’s material. She pulled inspiration from the actors and their personalities and married them with her designs.

I took a lot of cues the people playing the characters. I think their look has to be authentic to who they are. One thing I thought was really cool about Ashton was, he was this modern character. His whole body ate it up and it was very much him. It was really fun because he was just down to get into character. This character was similar, not in terms of his thinking process, but visually was similar to Ashton Sanders. It was perfectly fitting and really fun to play around with. A lot of the wardrobe choices were based on the script and how Rashid and I envisioned the characters, even down to Mr. and Mrs. Dalton (Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel). These are very liberal white people that live in Chicago and they’re trying to do right. How do they dress? They should be very worldly, free, but not. That helped me a lot more than the book because the book was set in such a different time, the wardrobe had to do more than just look modern, but it had to really take your there visually.”

Birkett goes on to explain the importance of getting into the mind of the character, and the importance of representation in costume design:

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Margaret Qualley who plays Mary was really excited about the costumes. She saw her character using a lot more appropriation. She asked, “Should Mary be wearing gold hoops?” and I said, “No! She shouldn’t!” because then it’s obvious. The complexities of race and how one dresses is huge. This was new to Mary, her being down with black people. She was doing it in a very different way. If she was appropriating, it would have meant something like that’s who she wanted to be and it’s more complicated than that. That’s why I think as a costume designer and being an African American woman, I could relate to the experiences and how complex race can be from both sides. I don’t think a costume designer who never has to deal with race would know that.

I think it’s really important because there aren’t a lot of African American costume designers in the industry. Ruth Carter just won her first Oscar. She’s my hero. She’s been doing this for forever and it’s so important that we have people of color doing costume design because their perspective is telling the story in a whole different way. These characters and how you represent them are really important because a lot of people see themselves in these characters. If you don’t really put a lot of thought into it and you think that all black people from the hood should be wearing hoodies and baggy clothes, then that’s what we get. We get these images of how black people should act in the world, that we all are this way. Even with the other black characters, like Bessie (KiKi Layne), and even his friends that try and get him to do crazy things. I purposely said, “I do not want everybody to be wearing black.” I didn’t want anybody to look stereotypical because I think even when you go to the hood there’s so much depth to us, how we dress, who we are, and I just feel like you don’t really see that a lot in films, especially in Black films because maybe we don’t even see ourselves as that complex. We’re like, “Let’s put a label on it!” and it’s a little deeper than that. 

“Native Son” is sure to bring up some well-needed conversation in the weeks to come. Towards the end of the interview, Birkett informs me of how she hopes “Native Son” will impact people moving forward:

“I think we totally forget what an impact film makes on us. Films and TV, that really shapes and molds our lives and teaches us that we can dress like this, and look like that. We’re all inspired by these characters and I felt like a lot of films were losing that, not really giving the characters a character! Not just looking great and fashionable but giving them a specific personality. People identify with these personalities, “Like that’s me! I’m a little punk, I’m a little hip hop. I’m a little this, I’m a little that. I think it’s huge, so if people walk away feeling inspired to want to be different, then mission accomplished. That’s amazing.”

Awards Circuit would like to thank Elizabeth Birkett for taking the time to speak with us.

“Native Son” is streaming globally on HBO NOW and HBO GO.

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