Native Son Gets the James Baldwin Edit

Suzan-Lori Parks’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s famed 1940 novel reframes some of the book’s most controversial details through a critical lens.

The director, Rashid Johnson, and the screenwriter, Suzan-Lori Parks, translate Richard Wright’s Native Son to modern-day America through a Baldwinian lens, reducing the novel’s most depraved depictions of black life. (HBO)

This article contains spoilers for Native Son.

Selling more than 215,000 copies in the three weeks following its American debut, Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, successfully captivated readers nationwide. The story of Bigger Thomas—a hardened, murderous black 20-year-old confronting poverty in Depression-era Chicago—thrust audiences into a complicated conversation about race and racism in America. The book garnered comparisons to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and earned Wright the title of America’s “best Negro writer.”

But James Baldwin, Wright’s then-25-year-old protegé, was not so generous in his estimation of Native Son. Although he first praised Wright’s novel, and celebrated the righteous indignation of the work as an “immense liberation and revelation,” his later concern with Bigger’s portrayal led him to excoriate his mentor in the 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” In the critique, which later sprouted into the strategically named essay collection Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin admonishes his literary forefather for what he described as Native Son’s grating, dimensionless depiction of black life in America. For Baldwin, Bigger’s acts of rape and murder perpetuated dangerous stereotypes at a time when black men were lynched for less, and served only to “whet the notorious national taste for the sensational.” He argued that with lines like “[Bigger’s] [murder] seemed natural; he felt that all of his life had been leading to something like this,” Wright had created a character who was too grotesque to be a representative portrayal of black people.

In HBO’s new film adaptation of Native Son, premiering April 6, the director Rashid Johnson and the screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks reckon with Baldwin’s damning critiques. They translate Wright’s plot to modern-day America through a Baldwinian lens, reducing the novel’s most depraved depictions of black life and capturing Bigger’s humanity. And while the latest adaptation preserves much of Native Son’s original plot, Johnson (in his directorial debut) and Parks (who won a Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog) still seek to tell their own story.

In both the novel and the 2019 film, Bigger, played by Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), sets out on a dark path soon after being hired as a driver for the liberal philanthropist Mr. Dalton (Bill Camp) and his daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley). After chauffeuring an inebriated and incapacitated Mary home from a party, Bigger tries to help her into her bed. Mary’s drunken commotion awakens her blind mother (played by Elizabeth Marvel), who calls for Mary as she walks down the hall, sending Bigger into a panic. In trying to avoid being caught in such a compromised state, Bigger holds a pillow over Mary’s head, unintentionally suffocating her to death. Panicked and fearing for his life (who would believe a poor black man killed a rich white woman by accident?), Bigger resolves to burn her corpse in a furnace. And thus he begins his life as a fugitive—catalyzing a series of brutal acts that reinforced the most heinous perceptions of black people.

Ashton Sanders plays Bigger Thomas in Native Son, alongside Bill Camp as Mr. Dalton. (Matthew Libatique / HBO)

Baldwin claimed that Bigger’s anger and violence confirmed the “fantastic and fearful image which we have lived with since the first slave fell beneath the lash,” in his essay “Many Thousands Gone” from Notes of a Native Son. In Wright’s rendering, Bigger kisses Mary as she sleeps, unable to control his impulsive attraction to white women—a horrific and historic trope. Two and a half decades before Native Son, the 1915 blockbuster The Birth of a Nation showed Ku Klux Klan members fighting to save white women from black men (played by white men in black face), who threatened the women with barbaric sexual advances. For Baldwin, Wright’s depiction of Bigger etched these ideas deeper into the American psyche.

In the new film, by contrast, Bigger resists Mary’s flirtation, thereby subverting the mythical predisposition of black male sexual assault against white women. Parks steadies the film’s focus on Bigger’s fear—captured by his desperate claims during Mary’s drunken revelry: “You gotta stop. You’re gonna get me fired, alright?” And while Wright’s Bigger revels in Mary’s death, and experienced a “terrified pride in feeling and thinking that some day he would be able to say publicly that he had done it,” Parks’s rendition aims to separate him from such an unnatural deed. Bigger’s act of murder on-screen is just as graphic as the one in the novel: He decapitates Mary’s corpse after a fruitless struggle to fit it into the furnace. And though the updated Bigger shows little remorse for Mary’s death, he also shows no pride. Instead, he seeks to distance himself from the murder and tries to maintain his humanity, saying, “So I won’t make it me. I won’t make it anybody. I gotta find a way to be okay somehow.”

While on the run, Bigger’s violence extends to his girlfriend, Bessie, who, in the original text, he rapes one night before bludgeoning her with a brick. In the novel, the two murders are described as “the most meaningful, exciting, and stirring thing that had ever happened to him.” But when Parks depicts Bigger embattled with Bessie under similar circumstances—standing with his hands wrapped around her neck—he quickly pulls away and collapses, murmuring, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry” as Bessie runs away to safety. Unlike Wright’s self-satisfied Bigger, the HBO film’s version is burdened by remorse. He is a human who made a grave mistake. Though Mary’s life was lost by his hand, he doesn’t want to be a murderer.

Sanders with Kiki Layne, who stars as his character’s girlfriend, Bessie. (Matthew Libatique / HBO)

When asked why she cut the rape scene from her adaptation of Native Son, Parks said, “It would’ve hijacked his character. That’s not who he is.” But when adapting texts, what is the cost of removing core elements of an original story—even those that are deemed problematic? Though he provided a much-needed critique about the dangers of singular black narratives, Baldwin—and, subsequently, Parks—failed to underscore (or investigate) the intention of Wright’s depictions. Despite its challenges, Wright’s story did succeed in shocking America’s system, and pushing a country to reckon with how systemic racism and poverty might have led Bigger to rape and kill. In his review of the book in a 1963 issue of Dissent magazine, the writer Irving Howe noted, “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever. No matter how much qualifying the book might later need, it made impossible a repetition of the old lies … A blow at the white man, the novel forced him to recognize himself as an oppressor.”

Still, the triumph of Parks’s modern translation is that while she also captures what being black in America might drive one to do, she does not compromise her protagonist’s humanity. Whereas Wright’s illustration of Bigger’s outward-facing rage was deemed sensational and not relatable by many ordinary black Americans (the character was partially based on a 1930s serial killer), Parks focuses Bigger’s anger inward. Rather than his murder of Mary begetting more murder, as it does in Wright’s novel, this film’s Bigger imposes the consequences of his actions on himself—by committing suicide by cop. His death means that he rejected the life of a killer; it is his redemption.

Despite their divergent renditions of Bigger’s demise (Wright’s Bigger is convicted and sentenced to death via electric chair), both Wright and Parks write the antihero’s death as happening at the hands of the state. In doing so, they indict a troubled country mired in discriminatory systems—an oppressive parent who aims to strike fear in her children, only to cast them away, unmoved by the loss of her native sons.