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Next Steps for Bigger Thomas

On the occasion of my ENGLISH 467 class discussing Richard Wright’s classic novel, I post this review of the most recent film version. The review first appeared in Tribes.


This is not your Richard Wright’s Native Son. In a sampling and remix world, director Rashid Johnson and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks jacked the novel for some beats to spin out an HBO special. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You take great, ready-made source material whenever you can find it. Goethe did it with Faust, Faulkner with Light in August, and Lerner and Loewe with My Fair Lady. Norman Loftis drew liberally on Wright’s novel to frame his gritty film Small Time. Of course, these artists did not choose to title their adaptations The Book of Job, The Gospel of John, Pygmalion, or Native Son, respectively. But Johnson and Parks, in a fairly bold move, drastically alter the material yet retain the tag. Is the result a bowdlerized artifact or an admirable departure? Probably both. And the tension will just have to do.

Although set in contemporary Chicago, the outline of the first two-thirds of Wright’s novel remains clear. Bigger Thomas, mostly called Big (Ashton Sanders), is a disgruntled youth who lands a job as a chauffeur with the Dalton family. He experiences shame when forced to hang out in the ‘hood with Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend Jan (Nick Robinson), accidentally smothers Mary to death with a pillow, places the corpse in the furnace, and eventually goes on the run from the law, dragging his girlfriend, Bessie, along in the process. But this fugitive is not the racially overdetermined, inarticulate victim of Wright’s novel. In fact, he quotes Du Bois regarding double consciousness, reads Harold Cruse on black intellectuals, and peruses Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. He listens passionately to Bad Brains and Beethoven, uses words like stereotypical, understands what Luddite means, and diagnoses certain people as having a slave mentality. He even quotes the Roman poet Juvenal, panem et circenses (bread and circuses, the means to control the masses), which he says is the only thing he remembers from school. Big has received the Baldwin-Ellison makeover. He has loads of dimensionality and charm, what both critics wished he possessed. Yet, for all his cerebral qualities, seventy-nine years after the novel, he flubs a pivotal scene. He can’t say to Mrs. Dalton, “Come get your drunken daughter, yo. I helped her up the stairs, but I’m out.” Instead, he pitifully implores Mary to be quiet and explains that he doesn’t want to lose his job. Of course, jobs are crucial, but the drama pales in comparison to the novel. In that text, Bigger fears for his life. The 1940 scene that Old Bigger acts in doesn’t work in Big’s 2019 world.

The killing of Mary Dalton begins the “Flight” phase of the film, which ends with an unarmed Big, not a threat and at a standstill, being gunned down by policemen---surely a nod to tragic and all-too-familiar contemporary scenarios. Viewers will notice that the film’s demarcations---“Fate,” “Fear,” “Flight”---are a shuffled version of the sequence in the novel---“Fear, “Flight,” “Fate.” Ironically, this suggests that modern Bigger is doomed from the start. His beginning is his end, and he provides some garbled commentary on fatalism along the way. In contrast, it is in the “Fate” section of the novel, which he journeys through fear and flight to arrive at, that Bigger expresses self-discovery. It’s a horrible revelation: “But what I killed for, I am!” As a product of Wright’s existentialist questioning, Bigger embraces murder as a positive act. This links Wright’s novel to works such as Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. It is a long and winding road to Bigger’s conclusion. We have to put up with some lengthy speeches by a lawyer and the prosecutor as well as discourse concerning religion. These are features of the novel that often are criticized. But Big has patience for the philosophical unfolding, though the filmmakers do not.

The premature conclusion also omits the brutalization of Bessie (Kiki Layne). The Jerrold Freedman version in 1986, starring Oprah Winfrey, made the same omission. In the novel, to free himself of his girlfriend and now coerced fellow fugitive, Bigger bashes her with a brick and throws her down an airshaft. This is the key scene because it is the one that casts Bigger beyond redemption in the eyes of many readers and accomplishes Wright’s goal to transcend the sentimental feel of his earlier work. It also clinches his thesis: oppression will breed inexplicable eruptions. Violence against Mary is accidental. Murder against Bessie is intentional, not to mention the rape. She is a blues figure, and we don’t miss the significance of her name. Moreover, critic Edward Watson extracted some of Bessie’s dialogue in the novel and demonstrated how it breaks down into blues lyrics. He argued, “Native Son is one extended blues the spirit of which is particularized in Bessie. Wright chose Bessie, perhaps because of another soulful Bessie, and, perhaps, because she is the only black woman in the novel who could sing of broken hearts and broken dreams, of Fear and Flight and Fate; of a life full of ‘just plain black trouble.’” Naturally, it’s understandable if the filmmakers don’t want to get as tragically blue with Bessie as Wright does. She’s practically helpless in the novel. But to erase her suffering or minimize it---she’s a striving college student in the film---misses an opportunity to explore deeply the effects of oppression through her eyes or song. The film also minimizes a leftist critique in general as well as Wright’s criticism of “do-good” liberals. Jan refers fleetingly to “one percenters,” but is more serious about getting high than doing political work. This is certainly not the committed Jan Erlone of the novel. Furthermore, it is implied in the film that Mr. Dalton could own the Thomas dwelling, but the novel is explicit that Dalton is a slumlord who owns the building on Indiana Avenue in which Bigger lives at the same time that Dalton is giving him “a chance” on the other side of town.

With all the ideological losses, then, that one can associate with the film, what recommends it? I assume there is much because the most frequent summation that I have encountered is that the movie is interesting. This is the most non-descriptive description in the English language, so I take the comments to mean that the film draws interest or, in business terms, adds interest. This makes sense. The cultural text Native Son, which includes the novel, previous screen versions, theater renditions, and assorted scholarship, has been commendably expanded by a deft, visually stunning, well-acted portrayal of modern times. The film does things that Wright could not do: explain the relevance of his work in 2019, capture a poignant twenty-first-century encounter with racism, and mediate current (to us) conversations about black identity. You don’t come across much postmodern blackness in Wright; the green-haired, punk-attired, disdainful-of-hip-hop Big drips with it. One of his cronies, who had previously called Big a clown, judges him to be not a “real nigga” but a “pussy oreo.” This prompts Big to thrash him and then ask heatedly, “Am I Black enough for you now?” What he wears, listens to, and kicks ass for, he is---at least in part.

Unlike the novel Native Son, which barely makes mention of any, music, as suggested, is central to the film both as subject matter and, of course, as soundtrack. Big, whose mother describes him as a special boy who always did things his own way, constructs much of his identity through heavy metal and classical, some of which we hear. In the car, Mary asks him what kind of music he likes; he promptly turns to a radio channel playing rock and then quickly to a channel broadcasting classical. Shortly thereafter, he attends with Mary and Jan a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which he describes as a “true fucking masterpiece.” None of the musical transitions seem jarring. They match the images of an unfolding life: Beethoven in the concert hall, popular music in the longue, party music at the party. Perhaps the most marvelous musical moment occurs at the end. We hear “Cristo Redentor,” trumpeter Donald Byrd’s 1964 classic, playing from the moment the police arrive through the closing credits. This is a crucifixion-to-ascension sequence, the spirit of the Christ-like Big now hovering above us.

As indicated, Big’s complexity makes him an anti-Bigger. But he also paradoxically and essentially still is Bigger. He was born with “black guilt,” that peculiar donation of white supremacists: We hold it in our minds about you and thus it is so. Big then gets physically convicted, welcomed by bullets to the end that he had coming. But he lived among a new generation of talkers and critics, and that, with all said and done, is a good development. Johnson and Parks have not adapted the novel Native Son so much as they have elongated it. Big did not need to be awakened by an alarm clock at the top of the morning, as Bigger needed in the novel. Big was mainly awake and astute, though experiencing lapses in judgment, as he took us on an important tour of some of the repetitions that occur in Old Bigger’s afterlife.

Keith Gilyard

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