HBO's Native Son Reimagines Richard Wright's Protagonist, with Unexpected Consequences

TV Reviews Native Son
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HBO's <i>Native Son</i> Reimagines Richard Wright's Protagonist, with Unexpected Consequences

I keep wanting to say “it’s flawed” or “it’s a little confused” or “it’s disjointed,” but every time I try to say what makes it that way, I think the ways it’s disjointed and confused are exactly right and part of the point: What I can say without equivocation is that Native Son is excruciating to watch.

Nearly eight decades after Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, HBO’s recasting of the story, set in present-day Chicago and written by the extremely gifted Suzan-Lori Parks, is painfully true to the original. As in, not much is anachronistic. As in, not much has changed. The most glaring anachronism—a mansion that still runs on coal and whose furnace needs to be stoked every day—feels super-creepy the first time we see it, and it doesn’t take long to understand why.

Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders) is a young man who exists in a liminal, between-worlds space. Peers in his neighborhood don’t get him—don’t get his punk trappings, don’t get his intellect, don’t get his diffidence about robbing the corner store or about meekly working his way up the ladder toward some kind of management. His girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), loves him for his iconoclastic otherness, but most of her friends think he’s weird. When he gets a posh job as a chauffeur for a white real-estate mogul, he’s certainly no less out of his element, as every conversation with the man’s college-aged daughter, Mary (Margaret Qualley), drives home in a totally cringe-inducing way (Mary’s a political “radical” who uses “summer” as a verb because “assuming is worse, isn’t it?”). Mary has boundary issues, which of course leads to a very upsetting turn of events featuring that coal furnace.

Wright’s original story cast Bigger Thomas as a kind of abstracted, allegorical figure, a person whom society so needed to criminalize that it essentially didn’t matter what choices he made: There was basically no escaping becoming the violent, dangerous, scary thing he was obligated by the system to become. Bigger Thomas in the book is a rapist, a murderer, an unhinged collection of our basest impulses. This choice drew some fire in its day (notably from James Baldwin), and still does. Parks has modified the character somewhat: He’s explicitly not a rapist (he points this out himself); he’s quite bright and socially conscious; Mary’s death is essentially a grotesque accident founded in a moment of panic. But the allegorical sense remains, and for good and bad, it’s partly what allows the character and the story to translate so seamlessly across several decades. Significantly, though, the other part is that Sanders creates a real person, not an archetype, in his portrayal of Bigger Thomas. It’s both. So it’s honestly hard to characterize whether it’s a true, or faithful, adaptation, and it’s also hard to say whether its fidelities or its deviations are more relevant to where it succeeds. But on balance, succeed it does, chillingly and sometimes in spite of itself.

There are things about this adaptation that are… strange, though, and they might arise from the same tension between Bigger Thomas as a man and Bigger Thomas as a concept. The murder that cleaves the narrative into two halves (two wildly different halves, which is either a big problem or a stroke of genius meta-comment on accidents that cleave lives into wildly different halves) is so entirely avoidable it’s almost annoying. But to Parks’, Sanders’ and director Rashid Johnson’s credit, it doesn’t entirely derail the film. Rather, it leaves you grappling with, “Well, define avoidable?” kinds of questions. In truth, it’s not credible that a guy like this iteration of Bigger Thomas would kill anyone. How it actually happens is also not credible, and what happens after that beggars belief on all but the most conceptual level—other than the final scene between Bigger and Bessie, which has an admirable alacrity and feeling of inevitability to it.

All told, this Native Son is a highly watchable and frequently discomfiting film in which the violence of one generation melts smoothly and nastily into the violence of another. At a thematic level, it’s still Native Son. The decision to turn Wright’s polemical, divisive protagonist into a flesh-and-blood individual has mixed ramifications, but Sanders does a very fine job with what he’s given. Problematically, he’s now too human to be a sweeping trope. He has to be dealt with as a person, and the film doesn’t always give him the infrastructure to be one.

Native Son premieres Saturday, April 6 at 10 p.m. on HBO.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.