“Native Son” and the Cinematic Aspirations of Richard Wright
“Should the Novel Native Son Be Made Into a Motion Picture?” This was the name of a symposium held at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel in May, 1940—just two and a half months after the publication of Richard Wright’s best-selling novel. Hosted by the League of American Writers, a Communist-affiliated group for which Wright would soon be elected a vice-president, the symposium gathered soon-to-be-blacklisted screenwriters, the future production chief of MGM, and emerging leaders of the civil-rights movement to argue the merits of adapting Wright’s controversial novel. “Native Son” was meant to shock: it tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a black Chicagoan who accidentally murders the daughter of his white employer, then kills his girlfriend, Bessie, while fleeing the police, and ultimately pays for his crimes in the electric chair.
The symposium doesn’t appear to have been Wright’s idea, but it could have been: he was a child of the cinema. In 1941, he told his friend Harry Birdoff that the movies were his “dish” because, he said, “I think people’s lives are like the movies.” In “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” the essay that served as the introduction to “Native Son” in its multiple reprints, Wright explains, “I wanted the reader to feel that Bigger’s story was happening now, like a play upon the stage or a movie unfolding upon the screen.”
Bigger had quickly become lodged in the country’s popular imagination. To liberal white readers who encountered him through their Book-of-the-Month-Club subscriptions, he was a black antihero, claiming their interest and testing their sympathy. To some of Wright’s peers in the Communist Party, Bigger’s story read like bad propaganda: at the novel’s end, Bigger is failed by his Jewish Communist lawyer no less than by white capitalists; the book, they feared, might lead black nationalists away from the Party’s integrationist platform. To many middle-class black readers, Bigger was a disgrace.
Among those invited to the symposium was Orson Welles (an invitation to the event can be found in his F.B.I. file), who, soon afterward, began working with Wright and the dramatist Paul Green on an adaptation of “Native Son” for Broadway. Welles placed a red sleigh in the foreground of the play’s first set, an homage to his own recently completed “Citizen Kane,” which Wright had apparently loved. Welles also used elaborate sets, fades to black, and a soaring soundtrack to create Hollywood-inspired continuity between scenes. The play was hailed for its realist effects and technical innovations, and, during its run, MGM executives offered Wright twenty-five thousand dollars for the novel’s film rights. They had one condition: they wanted to cast the film entirely with white actors.
Regardless of whether “Native Son” should have been made into a motion picture, in the United States, in the nineteen-forties, it couldn’t be—not really. Wright turned down MGM’s offer and then received another, from the independent producer Harold Hecht. Hecht wanted to make Bigger Thomas into “an oppressed minority white man,” specifically a “Pole or Italian.” The white ethnic Bigger would be part of a cohort containing “a Negro and a Jew,” both of whom would ultimately step aside and let Bigger have a job that they all wanted because he had a family to feed. The film would end, Hecht explained, on “a scene with the Jew and the Negro who realize that it could have happened to them, or to anyone who does not have the opportunity of living in equality with other people.” Wright declined this offer, too.
Wright nonetheless wanted badly to break into the movie business; between 1941 and 1946, he wrote three original screenplays and pitched them to major studios. His first scenario was a period portrait of Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers, who, as early as 1871, had toured the United States and Europe, performing spirituals for white audiences. This pitch was followed by two “white life” stories, a screwball comedy and a procedural drama, both concerned with the difficulties of soldiers returning to civilian life after the Second World War. None of his pitches got past company secretaries. Wright, who had become disillusioned with both American liberalism and the Communist Party USA, moved to Paris.
Shortly after arriving in France, Wright gave an interview to the film journal L’Écran français, in which he described the implicit power that the United States’ regional film boards maintained over Hollywood’s centralized and self-governing Motion Picture Production Code. Enforced by the Roman Catholic film censor Joseph Breen—or “Pope Breen,” as Wright called him—the code was applied aggressively and unilaterally, in order to suit distributors throughout the country. This, Wright knew, meant de facto censorship of black stories, because Breen would cater to Jim Crow audiences in every Hollywood production. A film adaptation of “Native Son” couldn’t reach American audiences under these conditions.
Three years later, Wright was contacted by Pierre Chenal, a French director who had made a series of noirs and semi-successful literary adaptations and who now wanted to adapt “Native Son.” Chenal helped Wright apply for production permits, first in France and then in Italy—but they were rejected by both countries, “for reasons dictated by international policy.” With Italy and France indebted to the U.S. government through the terms of the Marshall Plan, a film critical of the conditions of black life in America was deemed a risk too great for their national film boards to assume. And so Wright and Chenal turned to Argentina, where Chenal had shot several films during the war, after fleeing Nazi-occupied Paris. In mid-1949, production on “Native Son” began under its Spanish title, “Sangre Negra” (“Black Blood”).
Buenos Aires was transformed, without too much difficulty, into Chicago’s South Side. Slums in both cities were dotted with tenements between abandoned lots, and the shared quality of life in first- and third-world poverty lent the film an unplanned, and unspoken, internationalist politics. Afro-Latino actors were cast as extras, but Americans got the leading roles. On Broadway, the twenty-year-old Bigger had been played by Canada Lee, who was thirty-four when the play was staged. By the time filming began, Lee was over forty, but Wright still hoped that he would play Bigger again. He was unavailable, so Wright, at age thirty-eight, decided to play Bigger himself.
Wright was not an actor, and his amateurism translates awkwardly into Bigger’s youth on screen. It almost works. His speech is slow and stilted, as though he’s speaking to people in a language they don’t know—which, partly, he was. Near the film’s end, Chenal added a Surrealist dreamscape full of cotton fields, urban rubble, and Bessie (Gloria Madison), dressed as a Jazz Age sensation. The pantomimed scene is meant to explain Bigger’s motivation for Bessie’s murder and to make manifest the deep history of Bigger’s racial trauma; it also stands alone as an experimental, if campy, set piece, like those in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and Orson Welles’s “The Lady from Shanghai.” Chenal drew on other noir conventions to heighten the film’s drama: high-key lighting, drawing protracted shadows; high-pitched strings, to stir up emotion when the acting lends none. At its center is Wright, a titan of American letters, a native son in flight.
In 1951, Wright and his producers placed the movie with Classic Pictures, a small American distribution company. Classic was powerless against local censor boards, which hacked at the film; some cut the scene of Bigger’s crime, which pictured Wright in bed with a white actress, and others cut dialogue that referred to racism or to labor politics, making much of the movie unintelligible. The stage play had been marketed as a work of “tremendous power and beauty.” Classic Pictures advertised the “Dynamite Loaded Story of a Negro and White Girl!” Reviewers and theatre owners were encouraged to receive it as tawdry entertainment, and most did. A reviewer in the black press compared the movie to D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” because all signs of Bigger’s humanity, and the environmental determinants that shaped his destiny, had been removed, “leaving the audience with no choice but to condemn” Wright’s protagonist. Chenal, for his part, didn’t blame the critics. He later conceded to Wright, “We presented a perfectly massacred version of the film and they have the right to review it.”
Wright died of a heart attack in Paris in 1960. He was fifty-two, his cinematic aspirations essentially unfulfilled. A quarter of a century later, the independent producer Diane Silver collaborated with PBS to produce a new adaptation of “Native Son,” starring an impassive Victor Love, with cameos by Oprah Winfrey, Geraldine Page, and Matt Dillon. Over the objections of the film’s director, Jerrold Freeman, the producers removed Bigger’s murder of Bessie from the story, fearful that including it would jeopardize viewers’ sympathy for their protagonist. (The character of Bessie barely registers in the movie at all.) This, Freeman told the Times, undercut Wright’s fundamental point. “The scene is pivotal in the novel because it underscores the disintegration of Bigger Thomas, a victim of racism and segregation in Chicago of the 1930’s who in turn becomes a victimizer,” he said.
Three decades passed before an adaptation was attempted again. This year, the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and the director Rashid Johnson have reimagined Wright’s novel in a version that will air on HBO on Saturday. Theirs is a twenty-first century character with shock-green hair and a skullcap beanie—a punk-rock Bigger, played by the entrancing Ashton Sanders, of “Moonlight.” Sanders’s Bigger has an assuredness that Wright, Love, and even the character that Wright originally wrote seemed to lack. His confident style has a source: in the course of the film, we see him reading Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk.” Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout,” and Harold Cruse’s “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” are strewn about his bedroom. In the character’s anchoring voice-over, as well as his impeccable self-fashioning, we sense the influence of these texts. This Bigger is an autodidact, much like Wright was himself.
In an interview published a year after Wright’s death, Ralph Ellison said, “Bigger Thomas had none of the finer qualities of Richard Wright, none of the imagination, none of the sense of poetry, none of the gaiety. And I preferred Richard Wright to Bigger Thomas.” This new “Native Son” adaptation, like the movies that preceded it, strains to stick to Wright’s melodramatic plotting. (Bigger, this time, strangles Bessie, but does not kill her.) But, in the story it tells of a young black reader, his imagination worn down and stamped out, it touches its source.
In the opening lines of “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright describes the novelist’s imagination as “a kind of community medium of exchange: what he has read, felt, thought, seen, and remembered is translated into extensions as impersonal as a worn dollar bill.” In this account, writing is already a kind of adaptation, in which inner experience is translated into a commodity form, alienated and debased. Wright also advanced a theory of Bigger Thomas as a reproducible trope, a mass-produced archetype of black masculinity. “The birth of Bigger Thomas goes back to my childhood, and there was not just one Bigger, but many of them,” he writes. Bigger Thomases, as he collectively called them, are prideful black men, living with dread and indignation under white supremacy. They are ciphers into whom readers can pour their anxieties and desires. Parks and Johnson render this archetype for a new generation, turning him not only into a punk, but also, strikingly, into a statistic: Bigger No. 4 is an unarmed black man, claimed not by the electric chair, but by police brutality.