'Native Son': From Stage To Screen, The Many Interpretations Of Richard Wright's Classic Novel

May 20th 2019

*Spoilers for Native Son below*

Richard Wright’s critically acclaimed yet highly controversial 1940 novel is still being adapted and performed nearly a century after its publication. With a stage play adaptation by Mosaic Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. last month and an HBO film adaptation starring Moonlight's Ashton Sanders and If Beale Street Could Talk's Kiki Layne, 2019 appears to be the year of Native Son. 

Native Son depicts the life of Bigger Thomas, a young Black man coming of age in Chicago, IL during the Great Depression. Forced to face the limitations of poverty and the weight of systemic racism and oppression, coupled with his inability to change the circumstances for himself or his mother (Hannah), younger brother (Buddy) and sister (Vera), Bigger is in a constant state of emotional and psychological distress, which impacts each choice he makes on a daily basis. When life seems to be at its bleakest, Bigger is offered a well-paying job and a rent-free home as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family in the suburbs. Accustomed to the delicate technique of straddling two worlds, it appears that Bigger will finally catch a break. Then he makes a fatal mistake that upturns his life and lands him in the judicial system fighting for his freedom.

While the film has been updated to 2019, the play stays true to the 1940 time period, exhibiting the timelessness of the story. Directed by Psalmayene 24, written by Nambi E. Kelley, and starring Clayton Pelham, Jr. as Bigger, the play opens just as the book does: with Bigger killing an overly large rat that has been terrorizing the Thomas family in their one-bedroom home. When Bigger kills the rat he overkills it because of the frustration that is latent within him. He is frustrated that his family has to live in such a manner and since he cannot see an immediate solution he channels it through rage behind a wall of invulnerable emotions.

What makes this portrayal of the novel so unique is that it hones in on the duplicity of the Black rat allegory. Except for this time not only is there an actual rat that Bigger bludgeons but there is also the rat that exists within Bigger’s psyche and accompanies him throughout the entire play. Whenever Bigger, or anyone else, attempts to improve his circumstances it is the black rat who is there to undercut his thoughts and dissuade progress. It becomes evident that Bigger sees himself as a rat: one who is at the bottom of the totem pole, one who is hated, one who is a rodent and a nuisance, incapable of rising above his station. Like the rat, Bigger is scouring within a system that is outside of his creation and control. Is this the double consciousness that W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of? The very same.

When at home with his family or friends Bigger is hard and nearly impossible to reach. There are moments when we see glimpses of his more aspirational side, for instance, when he laments at the pool hall that he would make a great pilot if white folks would only let negroes fly, but for the most part he is simmering with anger and in constant survival mode going from one scheme to the next until he lands a job as a chauffeur for the Daltons.  It is during these moments that we get glimpses of Bigger without the mask of bravado, but it is replaced with a subjugation that is much darker. Bigger is even less of a “man” in this space; similar to the one-room apartment that his family rents, Bigger becomes the property of the Daltons. He is hired to be a driver, but immediately becomes the accessory of the liberal, Mary Dalton, and her communist boyfriend, Jan, into the world of Black culture.

What happens when at every turn a person, despite desire or ability, is prohibited from pursuing his or her passions based on something as inconsequential as the color of skin? What happens when a person is constantly faced with the realization that he or she will never be able to attain a place in society beyond what white people deem is a high enough rug to be reached? Or when a person's culture is consumed and discarded on a whim? Richard Wright would say that society gets a Bigger Thomas, a ticking time bomb. Bigger’s bomb finally explodes when he accidentally murders Mary Dalton. Aware that no one will believe that it is an accident he discards her body. It is during these moments that we get to see Pelham shine in his portrayal of Bigger.

For the duration of the play Bigger on the stage is representative of the Bigger in the novel. He is meticulous, he is daring, he is afraid, but most significantly he has finally come alive. Wright created Bigger with the intent of demonstrating how generations of subjugation, abuse and impoverishment can create the very monster that white America seemingly fears. In the words of the late great Tupac, “The Hate You Give Little Infants F----s Everybody.” Or, in the words of Wright himself, “He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else.”

If there's one frustration with the play it is that it abruptly ends when Bigger is captured by the police instead of including the time when he is kept in captivity while he awaits trial--a huge departure from the book. Bigger's experiences in prison shape and alter his view of self and self-worth. To omit this is a grave disservice.

The 2019 film also has an alternative ending and what makes the film even more different from the stage adaption is that Bigger is gentler around the edges, more humane. Consistent with the pushback from many Black people when the book was first published, the film version of Bigger seems more realistic and not an archetype that doesn’t appear representative of the vast majority of the culture or perpetuates a false narrative. The multifacetedness of his character is quite possibly the greatest success of the film. Sanders' Bigger sports green hair, loves rock and Beethoven and has a day job as a messenger.

Yet for all of the character development, similar to the book, it is Bigger's pride that is the biggest impetus for his fear, shrouded in a cloak of anger; a mask that he would rather let smother him before removing it. In the film's more humanized version of Bigger, the underlying fear of not being “enough” of something, whether brave, Black, ambitious, etc. is what fuels his rage and bad decisions. As it was said on the Netflix show The Get Down, “You wear your angry face to hide your sad face.”

But the triggers for his anger in the film also differ from the book. In one scene we observe Bigger comfortable on the beach with Bessie, Jan and Mary, while Bessie polishes his fingernails. However, in another scene we observe Bigger meticulously remove his glasses before dragging his friend out of the Dalton’s car and beating him for saying that since he has gotten this new job he has “become a house n----a who is afraid to do real Black people work,” because Bigger chose not to rob a store with him. In the book, Bigger is the aggressor, all rage. He, in fact, yells at his friend for not being willing to join in the robbery while secretly hoping that his friend says no so that Bigger won't have to rob the store either. Again, fear masked behind anger.

Throughout the film, Bigger is forced to toe the line between being what feels authentic to him and being Black enough for his friends, a forced double consciousness.

One thing that this rendition does masterfully is to display the microaggressions that demonstrate the constant state of oppression and confinement that Bigger must endure. Bigger, an emphatic fan of Beethoven, is invited by Mary to attend a performance of his “Ninth Symphony.” He agrees but does not receive the same warm welcome at the performance as Mary and Jan. When the usher is handing out playbills he hesitates when handing one to Bigger as if uncertain if he is actually attending the performance. This is just one of the indignities that Bigger is forced to endure daily.

In striving to show Bigger in a more humanistic way, the writer, Suzan-Lori Parks, who Shadow And Act recently interviewed, decided for Mary and Bigger to develop somewhat of a friendship prior to his accidental murdering of her. In addition, she doesn’t have Bigger rape or murder his girlfriend Bessie, (brilliantly portrayed by Layne). Instead, Bigger takes no joy in his actions and is remorseful and apologetic. An emotional awareness that is new to the character and causes the audience to feel an empathy that many could not garner with the Bigger from the books.

Just like the play, the film’s writer, along with the director Rashid Johnson, made the decision to leave out the trial of Bigger from the final cut and instead has Bigger unarmed but gunned down by police. Much like a police shooting victim, the film's Bigger character and his eventual progression are cut short. 

Still, the decision for both renditions to eliminate the trial and Bigger’s interactions with the penal system and the effect it has on his family, those connected to him, and himself, limits the potential impact of the possibility to speak to what is happening in our current era and the prison industrial complex.

With documentaries like 13th and Time: The Kalief Browder Story, Ava DuVernay's upcoming Central Park 5 miniseries When They See Us and the movie If Beale Street Could Talk as evidence, it is clear that there is power--and relevance--in art that demonstrates how Black people are abused and victimized by the criminal justice system. If the goal of the film was to modernize the story, there was no need to remove the criminal justice aspect. The goal of the play seems to be to demonstrate Bigger’s ability to self-actualize without the criminal justice system's involvement. The film shows Bigger being shot by police, possibly in a suicide-by-cop scenario, which could be interpreted as one last attempt to control his destiny and not be subjected to the criminal justice system. Or it could be interpreted as just another example of what happens when an unarmed Black man on the run reaches into his pocket in front of the police. All of these endings have merit and messages, but, though arguably flawed in many ways, the original Native Son and its ending still have many lessons to teach.

Native Son was released in April on HBO and was on stage at Atlas Theatre in Washington, DC until April 28.

READ MORE:

‘Native Son’: A Stylish, Witty Adaptation That Tries To Reckon With Its Dark, Tragic Source Material [Sundance Review]

Photo: Getty Images

Porscheoy Brice is an editor at Shadow And Act. She is also the editor-in-chief of msmalcolmhughes.com. She is a Chicago, IL native strategizing in Washington, DC. In the words of the genius Jay-Z, she is “Pretty, Witty, Girly, Worldly; One who likes to party, but comes home early.” You can Email her at msmalcolmhughes@gmail.com or follow her on social media @msmalcolmhughes. 

TRENDING