Understanding HBO’s ‘Native Son’ in Its Totality
If you’ve never read ‘Native Son’ by Richard Wright in high school or picked it up for casual reading, the novel tells the story of a young man living in Southside Chicago in the 1930s who is faced with the reality of his circumstance. Wright does not apologize for his main character, Bigger Thomas’ crimes, yet, portrays him as a byproduct of the systematic causation behind them. In the novel, the defense lawyer argues that there is no escape for an African American man because they are fated to relive the destiny of the oppressed as long as society has formed the institutions that in-prison African Americans in oppression at a young age. While Richard Wright’s novel has received critical acclaim, authors such as James Baldwin have critiqued it as a reaction to the oppression and ultimately advancing a stereotype.
While HBO has adapted the novel into a movie, the movie has been modernized and changed to fit the current climate. Here is how Native Son, directed by Rashid Johnson, has exceeded expectations and is the perfect movie to watch right now in all of its layered storytelling genii.
Despite the mixed reviews the novel received, the movie carefully examines the perspective of Bigger Thomas through the eyes of an individual who is faced with the anxieties of being invisible, with the pressure of becoming seen. A perspective begged to be understood by everyone, not to be judged, stereotyped, victimized or put into a box- Bigger Thomas is a character we all need to acknowledge and Wright’s story plays a much bigger role in how we function as a society and what needs to change.
- The Movie and Novel are Both Relevant To Today: While the novel, Native Son is set in the 1930s and features characteristics that give that space away, the HBO movie is modernized to fit today’s reality. While it is hard to believe that the years 1930 and 2020 could be linked through racial inequality and limited opportunity, it is aligned to enter the discussion around our current climate and connecting history to reality. The perfect movie to watch to gain perspective towards fractions of a population often oppressed, yet, blamed for violence surrounding inner-city communities. The bottom line, not much has changed and that should scare you.
2. Bigger Thomas Represents the outsider’s outsider, given depth perception into the problems surrounding young, African American youth: If you can’t completely understand Bigger, you can certainly understand the pressures he faces growing up in America. In the HBO movie, Bigger represents Afro-punk- alongside his friends and girlfriend. His style and music stand out as uniquely different then everyone else he grows up around. A complicated introduction to examine African American psyche(Rashid Johnson on NPR), in a world waiting for this population to fail. Bigger represents the identity of someone completely unique and individual, yet, faced with the reality of his neighborhood as he is pressured by friends to rob a store, take drugs, and participate in the violence perpetuating his community. He blatantly is trying to escape that narrative. This story is layered in messages and meanings fit for depth perception into the problems some African Americans face, especially growing up in poor, crime-filled areas. From Bigger’s perspective, there are not a lot of opportunities to escape and even less to trust in.
3. The Odds Are Stacked Against African Americans Growing Up in Defunded Cities: Wright split his novel into books including Fear, Flight, and Fate. These three books are supposed to represent the function that fear, flight, and fate have on Bigger’s actions that later lead to his demise. The first event in the movie that paints this is when Bigger kills a giant rat with a frying pan at his house. He then taunts his sisters with the rat, as if to wave his suffering right in front of their faces, knowing his circumstances cannot be made better. We follow Bigger having conversations with his friends, where he is pressured to rob a store, pressured to take a “stronger drug”, pressured to survive. It is important to realize that the fear and anxiety that surround Bigger translate to the history and reality of African Americans in the United States. This fear for survival is able to manifest itself through drug dealing, taking drugs, robbing stores, and being a victim of the violence. This fear ultimately leads Bigger to get a job as a chauffeur with a rich White family- where he is getting paid $1,000 a week-a sum of money Bigger cannot refuse. The odds to escape societal pressures and avoid becoming a victim to his environment, when there is no way out of it, creates a domino effect for Bigger and his family.
4. A Dark Fate Can Manifest Violent Crimes Out Of Desperation to Fight Back: Bigger Thomas is lucky enough to enter the workforce as a chauffeur for the Dalton family. For a second, it feels that Bigger is going to be okay- yet, the novel thoroughly explains the layers of oppression and trauma Bigger has faced growing up, that remind us that he is not.
The HBO movie assumes its audience will understand Bigger through perspective. As he is in charge of driving The Dalton family around, including Mr. Dalton’s twenty-year-old daughter, Mary, a “White-Privileged-Liberal”. Despite her self-acclaimed title, she has no conception of the reality of Bigger’s background. She asks Bigger: “Where do you live in the summers?” and Bigger replies, “The same place I live in the winter.”- The daughter seems to take advantage of this disparity and ropes Bigger into her appetite for destruction lifestyle. As the culmination of Bigger’s fate, Bigger drives Mary home from a party, and Mary is unable to control herself as she was under the influence of drugs, provided by Bigger. She loudly begs for his attention-as if to purposely wake her father and mother who lives in the same house. On cue, her mother(who is blind) walks towards Mary’s room, asking for Mary.
To avoid being fired from the forced disadvantage he was in-Bigger attempts to silence Mary with his hand over her mouth, because he is desperate to keep his honest job and is afraid to go back to being an “other”, “other”-among his friends and community. Mary fighting back, and her mom walking closer, Bigger decides to put a pillow over Mary to give her the hint, and accidentally kills her. While this scene in the movie and novel can be viewed as an act of violence- having read the novel and putting yourself in Bigger’s shoes in the movie, the fate of Bigger becomes clearer: an act of desperation to survive. Violence translates this response in Bigger after years of torture from the pressures that consume him. A loud image that perpetuates an attempt to silence White voices comes with dire consequences, while Black voices are forced to remain silent.
5. The Ending Consumes A Dim-Reality that Happens Daily: The reason why the Black Lives Matter movement finally started to take shape this year throughout the world is because of George Floyd’s death. With the event on video tape-the, the whole world was able to grapple with the reality that African Americans face every day. The ending of Native son in the HBO movie was adapted to fit today’s narrative. While in the novel, Wright is able to show Bigger arrested and set to trial where his defense attorney explains Bigger’s motivations through a historical and societal lens, and Bigger is sentenced to death by the electric chair, Johnson adapted the film to fit today’s model of a disadvantaged population without the freedom of voice. While Bigger has committed a crime, and escapes with his girlfriend to an abandoned house, their relationship changes, and you are able to see the layers that consume Bigger. His girlfriend begs Bigger to turn himself in, and as the fear grows larger in Bigger- he threatens and touches his girlfriend with force-falling into the narrative he never wanted to fall into. As soon as she leaves- the police find Bigger Thomas, and shoot him to his death, as he was pulling his hands out of his pockets to comply with police orders. A reminder that regardless of reform or circumstance-Bigger is seen as a threat, even by himself faced with a group of police officers. He never had a chance for a fair trail, he never had a voice-he will never be understood.
6. White Privilege is Pronounced Lethal At the Hands Of Bigger: This education cannot stop with one person’s story or message. It is clear in the HBO movie, adapted by Rashid Johnson that White privilege at its best is to expose Bigger for what he feared he wasn’t: a stereotype of the White person’s narrative. Despite his daughter claiming herself as a “progressive liberal”-who is involved in the fight for change, there is a much bigger separation between Mary and Bigger which reveals that she doesn’t understand him at all. It is important to realize privilege in this movie, as a model that benefits from the system. A prescription to White-privilege exemplified in Mary Dalton, who is able to have a voice in institutions that run us, while Bigger Thomas, the person who should be involved the most is left out of the conversation completely. It is clear that Bigger’s motivation is to keep an honest job and simply survive in his community, while Mary’s motivation is to expose Bigger’s race at the expense of her own ideals and continue to live in a false-reality that she is changing the world when she is actually furthering her narrative. A paradoxical relationship shaped from years of oppression, a lack of resources, an imbalance of power- it is clear that the murder of Mary only exposes Bigger’s suffering even more.
If you have not read the novel, I suggest you do it. As the HBO movie is excellent and paints a modern picture, it is important to understand Bigger Thomas in his entirety. Native Son re-told through HBO encapsulates a much bigger problem in society. These problems aren’t being addressed directly by fighting law enforcement reform in the media-or in our communities at large. It is important to realize that White privilege exists and it has benefited from those at a disadvantage for a long time. While social media sharing might seem like a cause for change and exchange-it resonates with Native son in revealing Mary Dalton as a beneficiary of White privilege. Right now, social media has become a place to further a White agenda from people privileged enough to claim their progressive ideologies, and leave communities that Bigger is a part of out of the conversation completely. It is important to remember that this movement can be a chance to educate through the lens of African Americans in different communities and let Black voices be heard louder than the White voices. While it is nice to come together and create a community for equality- it is also important to understand the privilege that holds us back from fully committing and joining the conversation in the first place.
I highly suggest watching Native Son, directed by Rashid Johnson,and beg you to look at it from a variety of perspectives, or you will certainly miss the point. While Bigger Thomas does not represent all African-Americans or the oppression experienced by a single race, he does represent a portion of communities calling out for help, but being ignored by the White privilege foundation built on racist ideologies in the United States. It is important to watch and read different perspectives other than our own, it is even more important to take action in our own lives in the right way to be an agent for change for those whose voices cannot be heard through a Facebook or Instagram post, to be the listeners to the bigger issue, to let our privilege bridge the gap that has separated Black and White for so long. If these realities cannot be met with honesty and integrity, this opportunity for change may never surface, and result in a Mary Dalton and a Bigger Thomas cause and effect that will only cause more harm than good.
This is why Native Son is so important and needs to be understood in its entirety. If reality continues to reveal the understanding of a Mary Dalton-and Bigger Thomas as murder with no conscious, we have a lot more learning to do.