How ‘Native Son’ Challenges Our Expectations Of Stories About Race

Matthew Libatique/Courtesy of HBO

Richard Wright's novel Native Son is a pillar of the African American literary canon, and a new film adaptation, which is streaming now on HBO, changes the setting of the story from 1940 to the present day. While the movie presents viewers with a lot of nuanced, conflicting events that might make the story seem "morally ambiguous," the director of Native Son doesn't think that the term accurately describes the story.

"I would say that it challenges what and how we’ve become accustomed to digesting stories about race and class in the past, [which] are often tied up in a nice bow," director Rashid Johnson says, speaking to Bustle at HBO's NYC offices. "Even when they speak to the tragedy, somehow at the end we’ve come to terms, and this story doesn’t come to terms — we’re kind of stuck in the place that it leaves us. It’s hard to find heroes in this story but it’s equally hard to find villains, and I guess that leads to the idea of ambiguity, but I don’t think that that’s a moral ambiguity." The type of ambiguity that Native Son portrays, Johnson says, is "akin to the life and the world that we’re living in."

Spoiler alert for both the book and the film versions of Native Son. The final 30 minutes or so of Native Son follow Bigger (Ashton Sanders) on a downward spiral from the life that he'd grown accustomed to as a Black man from Chicago's South Side to the life of a fugitive. He's unintentionally killed Mary (Margaret Qualley), his boss's daughter, and decides not to turn himself in, despite his girlfriend Bessie's (KiKi Layne) pleas that he do so. Bigger ends up choking Bessie before she runs away, which differs from the book's plot, wherein Bigger rapes and murders his girlfriend. In the novel, Bigger is tried and sentenced to be executed, but in HBO's Native Son, he's shot and killed by police when he's unarmed.

The ambiguity of the storyline comes from the ways in which Native Son — the film — tells the story of what leads Bigger to the point of no return — his fear that he'd get caught in Mary's bedroom by her parents. But what happens in that bedroom doesn't warrant Bigger's death at the end of the movie. That's certainly not ambiguous, according to the director.

"I think a lot of the times, especially with stories around Black characters — and I find it to be quite disappointing — is that when we hear that maybe a Black man was shot by the police, we all hope that he went to college and had never smoked marijuana before, and that’s disappointing because it doesn’t matter what his story was prior," he says. "That he was a complicated human being and that he’d done whatever he’d done, it doesn’t justify his fate."

Johnson's entire approach to Native Son was to embrace the complexities of a protagonist who makes mistakes yet suffers an unfair punishment. If you're left with questions after watching the film, that's because Johnson and the film's screenwriter, Suzan-Lori Parks, meant to challenge viewers.

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"I don’t have the answers. I think sometimes the job of the artist is to ask the question and I tend to not have very specific didactic stances that I take on certain things. I think that this story is quite tragic from many locations," Johnson says.

Johnson may not be able to tell you how you're supposed to feel or what you should do after seeing Native Son, but he's confident that viewers will have the cultural understanding to grapple with the narrative.

"I think that if you interpret it as an evil Black man killing a white woman, then you have some real soul searching to do," the director says. "Anybody who sees it that way and doesn’t see the complexity and the unwinding of this narrative and how Bigger comes to the solution that he inevitably comes to, then you’re looking at things quite simply. I think audiences are more sophisticated than that."

Native Son encourages audiences to consider the role of white supremacy in catalyzing the events that unfold, and Johnson feels confident that the message will be received. If you're asking questions about the why rather than the what, you're moving in the right direction.