A contemporary update of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” is necessarily an overhaul. To transport the action of the novel—published in 1940, set in the Jim Crow nineteen-thirties, rife with melodramatic energy that is positively Victorian—to the twenty-first century requires not just a rejiggering of its particulars but a reconsideration of its essence. Thus, the “Native Son” that premières, on HBO, this weekend—a movie, directed by Rashid Johnson, from a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks—is a feat of literary criticism almost before it is a work of drama. Where the novel starts, with a bleak clang—“Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng!”—of the antihero’s alarm clock, the movie begins with a statement of his readiness: “I don’t need an alarm clock to wake me up.” It is awake to the ways in which the story, as invented from Wright’s mind and reiterated in earlier adaptations, lulls its observer into easy satisfaction.
Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is a young black Chicagoan who accidentally kills a white woman, Mary Dalton, the daughter of his employer. After a night of drinking, she’s helplessly sloppy, and he helps her to bed; fearful that Mary’s blind mother will hear her daughter and suppose that Bigger is despoiling her white womanhood, he suffocates Mary with a pillow while trying to keep her silent. During a subsequent manhunt, with his senses roused by the act of killing, he slaughters his black girlfriend. He goes to death row, but his soul has long since been snuffed out by internalized loathing and general disgust.
When it was published, “Native Son” was a best-seller and was inducted the canon because it found a form to discuss American racism, and it remains a crucial text of the black experience, but asterisks append to its classic status. On the surface of the prose, the paragraphs drag. The book, which has the texture of an existential penny dreadful, could be cut in half just by excising its many repetitions, which do little other than establish a heavy mood. Deeper trouble lurks below the surface of the novel, where there lies, as James Baldwin put it, “a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy.” “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin’s famous essay on “Native Son” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” shrewdly describes “Native Son” as a book so intent on capturing Bigger’s dehumanization that it neglects to grant him any humanity in the first place. “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended,” Baldwin writes. It’s a fatal fault, but, still, there is elemental terror in a horror story of a man deformed into a monster.
Earlier adaptations, bringing this slab of social surrealism to the screen, lifted mirrors to their eras, reflecting them. The first screen version, released in 1951, is an amazing mess that featured Wright, who was more than twice Bigger’s age in the book, as the centerpiece of a sensational spectacle. Hyped on one promotional poster as “the dynamite-loaded story of a Negro and a white girl,” the movie transferred the plot onto a plane of pulp noir. By the time that the producers and censorship boards had cut it to ribbons—removing key scenes depicting racial frictions and lynch mobs and mentions of leftist politics—it played like a bizarre combination of a miscegenation thriller and poverty tourism, with a Bigger who was, at best, a noble savage.
Another adaptation, released in 1986, gives every impression that its ideal screening venue is a classroom supervised by a substitute teacher. It may be foolhardy to attribute too much intent to the production, which combines the tedious rectitude of a stage-bound PBS special with the touching awkwardness of under-rehearsed community theatre, but the second adaptation strictly conforms to Baldwin’s disparaging view of the book. Bigger, played by Victor Love, is so pathologically sullen that he incarnates a stereotype; it’s both dramatically effective and politically vexing that he comes across like a trapped rat. It speaks to Hollywood’s tradition of centering white men that Matt Dillon, playing Mary’s Communist boyfriend, has a beefed-up role. It was perhaps inevitable that Oprah Winfrey, in her second film role, after Steven Spielberg’s similarly white-guilt-tinged adaptation of “The Color Purple,” would play Bigger’s mother; her emotional trembling is in tune with the production’s pornographic sentimentality. It is interesting that Geraldine Page, who plays Mary’s mother, speaks as if she’s taking in a rescue dog when her husband hires Bigger as his live-in chauffeur: “The relief people suggested it would be a good idea if he were put in his new environment right away.” The movie is only halfway skeptical of her patronizing attitude and very literal limousine liberalism. It was of its time in the sense that it arrived in a decade when cinema reckoned with race by telling stories—“A Soldier’s Story,” “The Color Purple,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Glory”—set safely in the past.
Dismantling these period-piece dioramas, the 2019 adaptation reworks the text. Its Bigger, played by Ashton Sanders, is a reedy figure with a husky voice, an alt-rock dandy with his hair dyed toxic green and his nails painted goth black. The original Bigger was a thoughtless lunk; it was clever and wise for the new movie to remake him as not a social problem but a late adolescent at loose ends. He’s a bit adrift—a “fixer upper,” as his girlfriend, Bessie, puts it—but serious and cerebral. We are shown, with a didacticism that Wright would admire, that his taste in authors includes Ralph Ellison, Paul Beatty, Claudia Rankine, and Legs McNeil, specifically “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.” His interior life is scored to the bands Bad Brains and Death and also to Beethoven. His allegiance to punk is an intellectual position and existential decision, as is his attraction to the composer. “Strength is the morality of the man who stands out from the rest, and it is mine,” Bigger says, reciting a line of Beethoven as if it were an inspirational quote.
He has also moved up several rungs on the social ladder in this adaptation. His late father is an accountant, his mother a paralegal, in a relationship with a social-justice lawyer. While, in the novel, they live in a one-room hovel, in this adaptation, they live in an apartment that feels no more cramped than any middle-class home with three kids. In the novel’s famous opening scene, a rat evidences the bitter squalor of the Thomases’ living conditions; it is highly incongruous that so juicy a rodent should disturb the peace of this home. The rat is here anyway. What does it now symbolize—the contagion of systemic racism plaguing a bright kid? His class can’t protect him from the ways that his race leaves him unprotected.
The action rises with greater patience and more suspense than earlier treatments. Parks builds some context and depth into Bigger’s relationship with the wayward Mary (Margaret Qualley) and her rebel-with-a-social-cause fiancé, Jan (Nick Robinson), who is, naturally, no longer a Communist boyfriend but an Occupy and #resist boyfriend. The script draws out a tangle of racial and sexual tension between Bigger and Mary in a way that other movies would not, or could not. (“Can I touch your hair?” Mary asks, knowing that the question risks offense and using it to charge her flirting.)
But what can it mean, now, when Bigger fatally smothers Mary, as if he is afraid of being lynched, and then disposes of her corpse in a coal furnace so outdated that a horsey line of dialogue must acknowledge its antiquity? It means that an intelligent grappling with a classic text has reached the limit of what the text has left to offer. Then the movie, deviating from the book, will grant its protagonist humanity by turning him into a Christ figure who dies for America’s sins, and the book, like the coal furnace, will prove to be obsolete.