I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also something much more than that. So are we all.—James Baldwin
HBO’s 2019 film adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic novel Native Son strives to achieve the impossible: to breathe life into a character with few identifiably human characteristics and no discernible relationship to the world around him. Bigger Thomas (played by Ashton Sanders) is a young African-American man living in South Side Chicago, whose awkward blend of insouciance and absurdity predisposes him to a kind of fatal histrionics, which would be readily avoidable for anyone with even the vaguest moral sentiment. He is Camus’ stranger crossed with Holden Caulfield and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. The movie attempts to revive Wright’s archetypal social monster in a modern context: Thomas is a product of his environment, a symptom of a social disease, the sum total of the structural conditions that created him. He bears little responsibility for his fate.
And yet, remarkably, everyone else in his life seems to have the capacity to be much more than that. There is Marty, the surrogate father who finds Bigger a job well beyond his prospects; Jan, the Social Justice Warrior, who expresses his personal anguish through political activism; Mary, the poor little rich girl trying to break free from the confines of her privilege; and Mr. Green, the older black driver, who exhorts Bigger to “keep both feet on the good foot” and not squander his potential. In an attempt to convey the inescapability of the systemic forces of society and the inevitable self-destruction of the oppressed, the film accomplishes the very opposite: it shows just how much room there is, despite the social determinism to which many academics and media pundits feel people are subject.
It is a good movie, with no shortage of emotional catharsis and narrative dynamism—though interspersed with a handful of cringeworthy moments of the sort that make you feel embarrassed for nobody in particular. Like its cinematic contemporaries, Get Out, Sorry To Bother You and Moonlight, the film captures the postmodern, poststructural, post-everything ethos that makes millennials giddy, while hinting at a broader social message, which never really sinks in. Although the lofty project of the film to transform Bigger into an actual human being strains credulity (it’s almost on a par with turning Pinocchio into a real boy), the attempt is aesthetically laudable, if psychologically quixotic. His neon-green hair and punk rock appearance make Bigger more attractive to the modern eye, and the stellar casting and magnetic cinematography don’t hurt either. But, in his fickle unwillingness to embrace the only life he will ever have and in his absence of recognizable character traits, Bigger falls short of possessing the complexity of a human soul. In sharp contrast to those around him, Bigger harbors no yearning beyond the scope of his own, self-involved visions of grandeur. Like the original book, the film endeavors to draw a straight line between our socioeconomic circumstances and the outcomes of our choices.
The film portrays an inner city protagonist from the dregs of society, who takes a job driving the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Mary Dalton, whom he subsequently murders in a deranged panic, to avoid being caught in her bedroom after an inebriated night on the town. When her body is discovered in the furnace, Bigger takes flight, traversing the city in a narcotic daze before nearly strangling his girlfriend to death and ultimately being executed by the police (in the film version). The murder is meant to be seen as the ultimate expression of Bigger’s repressed humanity, a detonation of violent passions, triggered by the hardships of his life on the wrong side of the color line. The film strays from the book in crucial ways, which convey how substantially the social context has shifted since the novel’s publication in 1940. The scene of the murder is especially bizarre, given how commonplace interracial romance has since become, and it takes some suspension of disbelief to presume that Bigger is consigned to the course he has charted for himself. Fortunately for all of us, the original has not aged particularly well. The story of Native Son has all the contours of a period piece.
Virtually everyone in his life has made an effort to help Bigger at one point or another, despite his uncouthness and utter lack of gratitude, and the violence that befalls him is almost entirely self-inflicted (he carries his dead father’s old gun around wherever he goes for some unknown reason). Even after he has committed the fatal deed, the others still see Bigger as a victim in some cosmic sense, as though his brutal acts had been inevitable. His lover, Bessy, seems more than willing to tolerate his weird antics until he puts her life in danger. His friends all seem to be trudging along through life in their own ways: something of which Bigger seems to be intrinsically incapable. They all want something, or—more importantly—want to become better than they are, while Bigger watches from the sidelines, casting judgments upon the unwashed masses, who scurry around like rats in a maze, without ever opening himself up to the beautiful tragedy of the existential rat race, the unbearable lightness of our short, scurrying journey through this world. Either Bigger is harboring some deep insight that everyone else seemingly has yet to grasp. Or—much more probably—he is a narcissist, completely out of touch with reality.
Native Son sold more than 215,000 copies in the first few weeks after its publication. It profoundly altered the cultural discourse around race. Up to then, the idea of a man whose life was wholly determined by structural forces beyond his control was inconceivable. The country had yet to come to terms with the fact that segregation was not simply the noble separation of the races but the elevation of one group at the expense of the other. Victim blaming was the norm when white America considered blacks. The impersonal power of systemic racism in American life was just beginning to enter the national consciousness, giving impetus to the ensuing civil rights battles. Racism was not merely a private matter, but a public health issue. Bigger, then, is a symbol of the complex dynamic between oppressor and oppressed, the victim of our original sin, and a warning of the unintended consequences of the established racial order. But the pendulum of history never stops. The necessary realization that individuals cannot be blamed for their social conditions can steadily transmute into a fatalism that discounts human ingenuity and autonomy in favor of a social and racial determinism, which glorifies victimhood and discourages individual development.
The most scathing review of Wright’s novel was written by James Baldwin, in his essay collection, Notes Of A Native Son. Baldwin excoriates his former mentor for creating a character who lacked all the entanglements involved in being human, and is merely a sterile sociological phenomenon. The book, for Baldwin, never captures—let alone critically examines—the perpetual mental adjustments we make to reconcile ourselves to the cards that we have been dealt. A crucial element of human psychology is therefore missing from the portrait of Bigger:
We are confronting a monster created by the American republic and we are, through being made to share his experience, to receive illumination as regards the manner of his life and to feel both pity and horror at his awful and inevitable doom. This is an arresting and potentially rich idea and we would be discussing a very different novel if Wright’s execution had been more perceptive and if he had not attempted to redeem a symbolical monster in social terms. Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people. And his force comes, not from his significance as a social (or anti-social) unit, but from his significance as the incarnation of myth. The reality of a man as a social being is not his only reality and that artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings in social terms.
In other words, the depths of our humanity cannot be adequately understood by calculating the sum total of our experiences, adding up our myriad privileges and disadvantages like some kind of intersectional arithmetic. For this reason, Bigger remains an abstraction even on the silver screen. He exists in a vacuum.
Both screenwriter Suzan Lori Parks and director Rashid Johnson were keen to integrate Baldwin’s critique into the film. Unlike the book, the movie presents Bigger as less of a sociopath who gets a thrill from the idea of his own annihilation and more of a bewildered man-child who knows not what he does. This makes him more believable, but Wright’s original portrayal more accurately reflects its era than Park and Johnson’s version reflects ours. At one time, it was wholly believable that someone’s life could be so marked by racism, so constrained by the predominant attitudes of the culture, so confined by the color line that the most heinous acts could be seen as understandable, even forgivable. But, in 2019, nearly sixty years after the Civil Rights Act, as the country teeters on the verge of becoming majority minority, the conflict between nationalism and globalism rages on endlessly, and widespread automation is imminent, the notion that the fundamental divide in our country is based on racial animus is beginning to seem outdated. Too many people are engaged in well-intended yet misguided efforts to apply solutions that worked in the past to the very different problems of the present. Almost a full century after Native Son first impacted the national discourse, Baldwin’s critiques remain apt.
Native Son presents us with a universal question: are we more than the sum total of our life circumstances? Providing a sufficient answer entails simultaneously entertaining two seemingly contradictory attitudes. The first involves a total acceptance of forces beyond our control—not judging ourselves or others for the spontaneous reactions and adjustments through which we attempt to reconcile ourselves to our environment. The second involves resisting the forces governing our surroundings and confiding in our willpower and ability to overcome our perceived limitations. The perpetual tension created by these opposing attitudes is often absent when we analyze systemic inequalities. Thus, we invariably end up torn between blaming the victim and blaming society—when we should take blame out of the equation altogether. Of course, we are the sum of our life experiences. None of us can control our fates. But most of us are also something much more than that—and art can reveal that something. Like so many film noir social dramas, Native Son neglects this in favor of providing moral absolution to a country that is far too willing to receive it.