Richard Wright's 1940 novel Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas accidentally killing the daughter of his wealthy white employer and throughout, made a statement about the systemic racism that Black people in Chicago's racially segregated South Side experienced at the time. But almost 80 years later, the core of Wright's book remains a true reflection of society. Speaking to Bustle at a press event at HBO's NYC headquarters, the young actors starring in the HBO adaptation of Native Son — Black and white — reflect on what it means to find similarities to their own lives in characters created so long ago
"I think this movie is portraying real authentic Black life. I feel like this movie is done in a way that we aren’t putting on characters, we’re being real people," says Ashton Sanders, who plays Bigger Thomas.
Airing April 6, the new adaptation of Wright's novel, adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson, changes some the key plot points. Spoilers for the novel. In the original book, Bigger's accidental killing of Mary (Margaret Qualley) sends him spiraling out of control, as he realizes that he might literally have none. He ends up raping and killing his girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), before he's charged for the murders and executed.
Spoilers for the film. In this updated version of the story, which first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, after Bigger kills Mary, he tries to run away with Bessie (KiKi Layne) but starts to choke her during an argument. She escapes, before the police find Bigger and shoot him while he's unarmed. The cast agree that the changes to the story make Bigger more of a sympathetic and realistic character, as he's meant to be.
"Eventually the book is like, 'this guy is kind of just like a monster,' you know? But I feel like we don’t lean into that," Layne says. Sanders adds, "Bigger isn’t supposed to be villainized. He’s not a villain."
For some, it may be hard to empathize with a protagonist who does do these things. But the film gives you get the sense that Bigger, an Afro-punk 20-something from Chicago's still under-resourced and disenfranchised South Side, wouldn't have had a chance to live his life the way he wanted, even if he hadn't committed such an enormous crime. Bigger acts out of fear, and Sanders and Layne can identify with that driver.
"I think we both leaned into the truth of the fear and anxiety, that is we are two young Black people in America and that is really something that we experience on a day-to-day basis," Layne says.
"It’s like you’re walking around and you feel like people are looking at you like you might be a threat, but then at the same time you feel threatened by all of that, all of these assumptions about you," she continues. Sanders agrees and adds, "The reality of [Native Son] is that Black men and Black women, but in this particular story, Black men, are faced with anxieties and pressures and fears and hopes and all of these other emotions that kind of get built up."
The Moonlight star goes on to explain that he doesn't even believe that Native Son is about the specific events that take place, but about the characters' circumstances.
"[When] I’m prepping for this [role], I’m prepping for the main thing of the story which is dealing with the fear, anxieties, and pressures of being a Black man in America, how all of that can inflict not a situation like this, but how unfortunate it is that this happened to Bigger," he says.
Layne adds that she empathizes with her character, who wants to forgive Bigger, even after she learns the truth. "She knows that he committed a murder but he’s not a murderer," she says.
The ending of this modern Native Son drives home the message that Bigger is a victim of his circumstances even more clearly — and in a timely context — than the book portrays. Of course, the story goes to the extremes in illustrating of how a fear-driven outburst could lead a person to act irrationally and then face the consequences that Bigger does. But Layne and Sanders both explain that they understand what it means to feel panic and discomfort in everyday situations.
"Like for me standing on an elevator, and feeling the pressure of being Black on an elevator full of white people," Sanders says. "Why do I feel pressure for being in my skin while standing on this elevator? You know, it doesn’t matter how much money you have [or] where you’re at in your life. No matter how much wealth you have, these are just the realities of being Black in America and I think that’s just what we’re really just trying to showcase with this film."
The film doesn't blatantly point out the white supremacist structures that keep people like Bigger down, besides noting that his boss owns a majority of Chicago's real-estate in the South Side, profiting off of its residents while limiting their resources. Instead, Native Son focuses on the younger generation and how they perpetuate these systems.
Once Bigger accepts the position of chauffeuring Mr. Dalton and Mary, the latter starts attempting to get close to him, in an uncomfortable friendship that includes microaggressions such as assuming that Bigger listens to rap music or asking him for drugs. Mary and her boyfriend Jan (Nick Robinton) also attempt to pretend that they're living in a post-racial America in which everyone could have the same experiences — like going away to a summer house.
"Everyone knows someone like Jan or Mary who posts on Instagram or Facebook their political views but like you don’t really know what they really believe in, or they’ll preach but they won’t vote," Robinson sums up.
Qualley, the daughter of actor Andie MacDowell, grew up well-off, and Robinson says that he grew up in Seattle where his middle school only had one Black student. "Mary was a really uncomfortable character for me to play. Probably the most uncomfortable character that I’ve ever played because she’s someone who’s super privileged, [and] I’m super privileged, but she is someone that’s blinded by her privilege and out of touch with reality and that spawns some really cringe-worthy moments," Qualley says. "And that was the intention."
While Mary is a particularly clueless example of someone who doesn't want to confront their privilege, Qualley also recognizes how difficult it is for someone like herself to truly understand how they've benefitted from the current racial climate, even if they're trying to.
"I grew up being aware of how privileged I am," she says. "And yet I’m probably not fully conscious of all of the ways in which that affects my experience in life because I know no other experience. While I’m aware of it, I’m also aware that I can’t fully be aware."
Bigger's story will likely inspire more conversations about how both hostile and seemingly benign realities of white supremacy affect Black people in large and small ways, which Layne and Sanders understand deeply. Bigger's actions in the film are inexcusable, but they're still worth looking deeper into, according to the movie's stars.
"I don’t think [Native Son] really leans into what’s right or wrong, it just leans into what is," Layne explains. "Those fears and those anxieties affect daily life for Black people in behaviors and choices... that’s the thing to question more to me versus ‘what’s right' or 'what’s wrong.'"