Richard Wright’s Native Son, the un-fairy tale of what can happen to a Black man who succumbs to the trappings of an America determined to hold him down, is already a heartbreaking tale.
But then factor in the scene when Bigger Thomas, the young man who accidentally kills a White woman, goes onto raping and killing his Black girlfriend it not only becomes even more heartbreaking; it becomes unbearable.
The girlfriend who loved him. The girlfriend who held him down. The girlfriend who wanted the best for him. And the girlfriend he runs to when he’s fresh out of options.
It’s a hard read for women, especially Black women. And it’s why director Rashid Johnson did without it in the HBO adaptation, premiering Saturday.
“I was born and raised by a Black woman who was a feminist and theorist,” he told ESSENCE on Monday. “It’s intolerable for me to think about that level of violence toward women in any way [while] allowing me to empathize with that protagonist.”
Even Sanaa Lathan, who stars as Thomas’ suffering mother in the film, said she was glad the scene was removed.
“I was not invested in telling the story of a monster.”“Native Son” director Rashid Johnson
“That would have been too much,” she admitted.
For Johnson, the decision to remove the scene was made with screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks.
“We initially did include the rape and murder of Bessie [played by ESSENCE cover star KiKi Layne]. And after reading that version of the script…so much of his existential journey around his exposure, and the class shift and opportunity, and the aspects of race that are pervasive in this story, they become insignificant when we create a character who we find that we’re incapable of tolerating.”
Johnson also said that during the height of the Me Too movement in America, viewers just wouldn’t root for Thomas the way he needed them to if he had kept that scene in the poetic film.
“I believe in 1939, Richard Wright writing this story, and even people beginning to consume it, there’s a tolerance for violence against women that is just not as present today,” he explained.
“I wanted to tell the story of a challenging character, and a character who is exposed to circumstances and conditions that challenge him, and challenge his decision-making. But I was not invested in telling the story of a monster,” Johnson explained of creating an afropunk version of Thomas, played by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders, complete with Irish-green hair and funky leather jackets.
“And the inclusion of the rape and murder of Bessie produces an irredeemable monster for me, somebody that I am incapable of tolerating and incapable of bringing to the screen with the intention that I have for this character,” Johnson added.
Native Son, also starring David Alan Grier, premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.