The HBO adaptation of Native Son has some tricks up its sleeve as it modernizes Richard Wright’s groundbreaking 1940 offering.
The biggest surprise is the main character, Bigger Thomas, himself. Cinema has never shown audiences such an African-American alt-culture poster boy: having green hair, wearing black painted fingernails and a motorcycle jacket, and digging on old Black punk bands like “Bad Brains” and “Death.” Maybe only a powerhouse talent could be bold enough to drop Native Son’s protest-novel pretensions and makeover Bigger (Ashton Sanders) as a sympathetic Afropunk—so HBO called Suzan-Lori Parks. In her hands all things are possible.
As one of the earliest works of required reading in the Black literary canon, the story is well-known: Bigger, a 20-year-old casualty of Chicago poverty, scores a chauffeur job with a rich white family of woke liberals and ends up on the run from the law after an accidental homicide leads to an intentional one.
“The most important thing for me was humanity,” says Parks. “Big and Mary are trying to have a friendship, one that’s very different than in 1940. Mary friends him on social media. That mattered to me, that we have time to get to know Mary and see Big and Mary together before the horrible tragedy—the accident—and all the weight of everything awful in the world comes crashing down.”
Parks first put her spin on another tour de force in 2005, penning the screenplay for ABC’s adaptation of the beloved Zora Neale Hurston novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
An undergrad student of James Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College in the eighties, Parks turned those lessons into a career as a playwright, snagging a Pulitzer Prize for her drama Topdog/Underdog in 2002. Her play White Noise recently wrapped at New York City’s Public Theater. On the heels of the film adaptation of Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, Parks and first-time director Rashid Johnson use Native Son to once again raise issues of Black male agency in White supremacist American society.
“Big is really living his life out of the box,” Parks says. “He wants to be his own person, so we’re just exploring that. What does it mean to be authentically Black? How much freedom do we have in this world, really? He’s a brother trying to find his way.”
Baldwin’s critique of Bigger as caricature started a long-standing rift with Wright back in the day. But was he right?
“James Baldwin was my writing teacher, so I’m just doing what my teacher told me,” Parks says with a laugh. “I think Wright did everything right, and now that we have the privilege of being in 2019, we can take another look and say, ‘What do we need now?’ I think that seeing Big and Mary as people in the fullness of their humanity allows us to see the fullness of our own humanity.”
Native Son premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.