Last month, “Native Son” made its contemporary cinematic debut on HBO. The film, like the novel its based on, examines the tragic life of Bigger Thomas, a young man well aware of his limited opportunities.
(Side note: the description of the film that is available via viewers’ information buttons mentions 1930s Chicago- – the film actually takes place in contemporary times. It is the novel that takes place in the 1930s.)
Bigger needs to work; he is roughly 20 years old, and he is bitter. The bitterness is quietly played by Ashton Sanders. Some of the action from the novel remains, such as when Bigger kills a giant rat in his family’s apartment.
What is interesting here is the characterization of Bigger. He is familar with hip-hop, but he has great fondness for hardcore, punk and classical music. Audiences are left to wonder what he really wants to do with his life. Bigger is clearly intelligent, but also angry, and it is only a matter of time before those two traits collide in a fateful way.
Things seem to look up for Bigger when he becomes a driver for the wealthy Dalton family. Bigger gets access to a sleek, black SUV, but he also has to put up with the well-meaning speeches and posturing of Dalton heiress, Mary. In an effort to appear “woke,” Mary takes on a down-with-the-people approach to life that quickly becomes annoying. She acts as if she understands every bit of Bigger’s reticence and much of black culture. The movie’s tragedy comes when a drunken Mary makes a sexual advance toward Bigger. His response sets off a domino effect of problems. Bigger’s final interaction with the police looks too familiar to modern viewers: he refuses to put his hands up, he pretends to reach for something in his pocket, when he is unarmed. The results are lethal.
One of the plot problems in the movie is how it changes how Bigger relates to his girlfriend, Bessie. When he is on the run, he meets up with her. Viewers who have read the book will know that Bigger also takes out his once-latent brutality on her. Here, she breaks from his strangling grasp. She walks away; she is free. In the book, she, too, is a victim. It is unclear if the decision was made to change the plot point to refuse to make a black female a victim, or for some other reason. At any rate, it seems as if all of the novel’s brutality should have been left in to add greater meaning to the ending.
Despite some of the issues with the movie, what remains is the social critique that Wright intended with the novel. Audiences will see the desperation of those without opportunities, and the intelligence of those same people, who are aware of their social standing and are not sure how things will change.
Perhaps the message simply is just because society does not value a group of people, it does not mean that those people will not desire better lives and are likely to grow angry when their dreams go unrealized. It is a dire message, but one that becomes more resonant with audiences as economic disparity continues to characterize American life.