April 8, 2019
Richard Wright’s Native Son adapted for HBO
by Alex Primiani
This past weekend, visual artist Rashid Johnson’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s pivotal novel about race and justice in America, Native Son, aired on HBO. For the New York Times, Salamishah Tillet explores the ways in which Johnson, and his literary counterpart, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, revitalized Wright’s novel for the small screen.
According to Tillet, the film centers Wright’s novel in present-day Chicago, and while Johnson and Parks take liberties in the plot itself, as well as the interactions amongst the characters fans of the novel might not immediately recognize, their vision speaks to the lasting impact and nuances of the work.
With permission from Wright’s literary estate, Parks’s vision diverges largely from the original plot, excising the long trial scene at the end in which Max, a white Communist lawyer unsuccessfully defends Bigger … Wright intended for readers to see Bigger as a product of “the moral … horror of Negro life in the United States.”
Wright’s novel, which was released in the United States in 1940, set the world on fire with its clear-sighted look at racial injustice in the 20th century. One of Wright’s critics, however, was his own mentee, James Baldwin. As Tillet observes, Baldwin’s essay on the matter, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” explores how the novel continued “to perpetuate the racial stereotypes that ‘it was written to destroy.’”
And while many other cinematic adaptations of Wright’s novel kept it strictly within the confines of the time it was written, Johnson’s film plays it off of Baldwin’s own critiques and places it within the context of the last 70 years.
“I think it is everything that is right and wrong with the existential journey,” [Johnson] said. “I think the book sits in the pantheon of literary narratives that have evolved to help us understand the black experience today, which isn’t a monolithic one. Not every black story fosters a sense of success or optimism.”
Johnson and Parks explicitly dig deeper into the inner life of the protagonist, Bigger Thomas. Parks says,
“The idea of a multidimensional Bigger was so compelling. That is our biggest difference. Wright created him intentionally as a character that’s driven by his circumstance, so to make him fleshed out and fully formed is an extraordinary move and really our way of recognizing how far we have come.”
Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.