Is ‘Native Son’ Based On A True Story? Racist Media Coverage Of A Real Murder Inspired The Original Novel
On April 6 Native Son will be released on HBO following the film's premiere at Sundance earlier this year. The film adaptation of Richard Wright's groundbreaking 1940 novel stars Moonlight's Ashton Sanders, Sanaa Lathan, and If Beale Street Could Talk's KiKi Layne. While Native Son is not based on a true story, exactly, Wright spoke out in numerous instances in his lifetime — the author died in France in 1960 — about how true life events had inspired the tale of Bigger Thomas (Sanders).
The New York Times' obituary for Wright even mentions the real events that inspired Native Son, which was the story of Robert Nixon, an 18 year-old Black man in Chicago who received the death penalty after a jury found him guilty of killing a white woman in 1938. Before the jury found Nixon guilty in the that case, per the Chicago Tribune, cops claimed that Nixon had confessed to murdering five people in the past, though his defense argued that he was coerced and threatened into doing so. Nixon was executed in 1939.
Also per the same Tribune piece, in a lecture at Columbia University in 1940 called "How ‘Bigger’ Was Born," Wright explained, "Many of the newspaper items and some of the incidents in Native Son are but fictionalized versions of the Robert Nixon case and rewrites of news stories from the Chicago Tribune." The paper's 2018 article acknowledges that the news coverage of the 1939 murder included racial slurs and stereotypes in reports about Nixon, which likely influenced public opinion.
HBO's modern adaptation of Wright's novel will surely strike a chord among audiences today, as the story of the 20-year-old remains relevant to the systemic racism that still pervades our society. Even without the true story of Nixon's execution serving as context, Native Son the novel has been lauded as a gut-wrenching portrayal of Chicago's under-resourced South Side since its publication.
When Native Son originally came out, racial segregation laws designated the South Side as the part of Chicago where Black people could live, but the region still remains racially segregated from the rest of the city. The Chicago Tribune reported in 2016 that of Chicago's 19 predominantly African-American neighborhoods, 15 of those are found on the South Side.
In the same article, the Tribune quoted a 2016 study by the Chicago Urban League which states that the South Side has seen "little to no change [in] residential segregation, economic growth or poverty reduction over the past several decades." Because the setting of the 1940 novel still faces extreme economic inequality, the story unfortunately remains plausible as something that could happen today.
Spoilers ahead for the novel and film. In both the novel and HBO's Native Son, Bigger kills two women and commits other crimes, but the movie complicates a narrative that might seem straightforward by depicting its circumstances with nuance. The story, through portraying the differences in privileges enjoyed by Black and white people, doesn't offer a moral at the end. There's no denying that Bigger makes grave mistakes, but there's also no denying that he is a victim in many ways himself.
As much as people may a story that originally came out in 1940 to be dated in its depiction of race relations and inequality, Native Son still feels vital and immediate today.