HBO’s Native Son, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel of the same name, isn’t your typical cinematic examination of race in America. That is to say, it doesn’t spew fantasies of racial harmony, or propagate the worn-out trope of white saviorism (cough cough, like Greenbook did). Instead, director Rashid Johnson and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks offer a harrowing glimpse into the inner-workings of Black pain, set in present day Chicago. Through anti-hero Bigger (played by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders), the film peers into the anxiety and depression endemic to Black experience in America, along with its unique root causes.
For Bigger, such deep-seated pain is rooted in poverty. Native Son begins with Bigger chasing a rat through his cramped South Side Chicago apartment, which is barely large enough for his single mother, younger sister and brother, and himself, before striking the rodent with a skillet—his first kill of the film. Not unlike the rat, Bigger and his family are trapped. But a lucrative way-out presents itself to Bigger: a job as a driver for Mr. Dalton, a wealthy white philanthropist (played by Bill Camp) and his outspoken, leftist daughter Mary (played by Margaret Qualley). As Bigger enters the Daltons’s elegant mansion, adorned in racially conscious art and volumes of European literature, we see a different, more affluent side of Chicago.
“I was willing to change a lot of things about this story,” Johnson told VICE over the phone. “One thing that was non-negotiable was that the film would take place in Chicago”—just as the story does in Wright’s original novel. Johnson, who was born in Chicago, went on to describe the city as being as “charming” as it is “brutal,” descriptors that shine through in his cinematography, which casts a dark, cloudy pall over his hometown, an apt illustration of Bigger’s bitterness and despair.
Such hopelessness was a key theme in the Wright’s book, which sold more than 215,000 copies in its first three weeks. And at the time, Bigger grew to represent more than himself in the American cultural imagination; he embodied Black life during the Great Depression, an era that left 50 percent of Black people in Chicago unemployed—a staggering consequence of racist hiring practices and rampant segregation, making Wright’s Native Son a tale of two cities.
Like Wright’s book, the contemporary film adaptation juxtaposes both Bigger and the Daltons’s worlds, which Bigger is charged with seamlessly moving between. In doing so, it reckons with the processes of segregation and gentrification that continue to plague Chicago today—as seen through the eyes of his anti-hero, who constantly questions Black people’s place in society.
Johnson said he first became obsessed with Bigger after his mother gave him Wright’s novel at age 15. With the film, Johnson said he was interested in dissecting Bigger’s “psychological schisms,” unpacking the anxieties that can be “buried inside of the Black psyche because of the more systematic aspects of white supremacy.” This becomes evident in an early inner-monologue from Bigger, who, while playing an arcade basketball game on the South Side, refers to his oppressors’ motives with respect to the Black community: “Keep them fed and entertained and stupid. That way you can keep them where you want them.”
The film explores the ways that oppression can make you resist societal constraints, transforming Wright’s Bigger into an afropunk loner, gloomy and apathetic and aggressively alternative. Sanders's rendition of Bigger is wiry and long-limbed, with lightning-green hair, tortoiseshell glasses, white socks beneath ankle-length pants, and a leather jacket covered in safety pins and the words “OR AM I FREAKING YOU OUT” graffitied in white. He prefers punk and classical music to hip-hop. He’s never what you think he is.
According to Johnson, Sanders was “not necessarily what people imagined” when reading Wright’s depiction of Bigger, whose name suggests someone more physically imposing. But Johnson said Sanders better captured Bigger’s “fragility,” offset by a “deep, brooding voice that doesn’t necessarily match his physicality.” Moreover, Sanders's commitment to the character allowed him to manifest his greatest complexities—his sense of righteous rebellion, his unrelenting anxieties, his depression, his fear—sometimes captured in small silent movements, like a furrowed brow or a fearful stare. But what did Bigger have to fear?
During Native Son’s climactic juncture, Bigger returns to the Dalton’s home with Mary after joining her at a friend’s party. As he attempts to help her into bed, and Mary’s inebriated state grows louder and more disruptive, Bigger hears her blind mother walking down the hall, and he suddenly fears for his job. His goal becomes urgent and clear: avoid being caught in such a precarious position—that of a young Black man tending to his wealthy boss’ white daughter, whose intoxicated commotion might inaccurately appear as screams for help, a death sentence in any era. To stop Mary from screaming, and drawing the attention of her mother, Bigger holds a pillow over her head—unintentionally suffocating her to death. Suddenly, the reality of what just occurred sets in. To protect himself, he disposes of her dead body in their family’s furnace. And once his attempt to hide his crime fails, he finds himself on the run.
After his unintentional murder of Mary, Bigger is seen at the edge of a waterbank. There, he reckons with his double consciousness—or, as he describes it, the experience of “always looking at oneself through the eyes of others. Of measuring oneself by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt. And pity.” His words underscore a key argument of Native Son: In America, oppressed people are perpetually subject to the controlling gaze of their oppressors. As a result, Bigger feels the world will never see him as the individual he desperately seeks to be. And though his murderous act was unintended, as a Black man in America, he’ll always be seen as guilty.
As such, Bigger embodies the fears and anxieties that constrain so many Black people, whose mental health worsens with every microaggression, every police killing, and countless examples of anti-Black sentiment, blatant racism, and bigoted violence. Therein lies the triumph of Johnson’s and Parks’s adaptation, and even where it improves upon the book on which it is based: Native Son confronts the complications of being Black in America by looking inward. And with its ambitious take on a timeless story, the film reveals how Black pain can take hold so deeply that, as we see with Bigger, self-preservation becomes self-destruction.
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A.T. McWilliams is a writer and Pushcart Prize nominated poet based in San Francisco, CA. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter, and read more of his work at atmcwilliams.com.