A New Native Son, Part 2

Read Part 1 here

As promised, I wanted to address a few more things regarding the proposed upcoming adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son. First, the way the novel links to our current political situation, and second, what Suzan-Lori Parks, the writer tapped to adapt the story, could bring to the work.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that the idea of racial equality and what we pejoratively refer to as “race relations” are strained right now. Even before the current administration and its questionable policies came into being, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement showed the hard truths many of us (i.e., mainly white persons) hadn’t realized: That the criminal justice system, from local police up to federal courts and from local jails to federal prisons, is intensely racist. Of course, the facts of institutional racism are certainly nothing new, and Native Son addresses this head on. Whether it is the police who hurl racial slurs at Bigger, the judge who refuses to allow for a fair inquest, or the death penalty which is applied with lightning speed, Wright exposes these institutions for what they are. Even journalists are implicated, writing stories referring to Bigger as an “ape” and other racial slurs. With all of this in mind, the film will probably be a timely union of fiction and reality.

To next turn to Suzan-Lori Parks, I want to convey how important she is as an American playwright. A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Parks has also written for the big screen, writing the screenplay for Spike Lee’s Girl 6. What Parks is primarily known for is her postmodern style. Her key works, among them The America Play are influenced by such other playwrights and writers as Adrienne Kennedy and Langston Hughes. Characters in her plays might travel across time, space or race in order to comment on history, race, and culture. Parks is also interested in the way we (re)present history and memory, as in her most recent work, Father Comes Home from the War (Parts 1, 2 and 3), which was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer. Because she is a bold and, sometimes, rather abstract writer, I am fascinated to see how she shapes Wright’s long, but generally tightly focused novel (things meander a bit in the last third). To begin, the novel runs well over 300 pages and is told from a narrative perspective that, while 3rd person, is inseparable from Bigger’s own mind. There is a deliberate closeness here that Wright crafted, so the reader would always be seeing the world through Bigger’s eyes, and imagine recreating that for film will be a challenge. I’m also curious as to how the film treats the character of Bigger. He is an unlikeable protagonist, a rapist and murderer–how do you make a film about him without either alienating the viewer or shifting the perspective onto another character? And if you do either of those approaches, how do you keep the flavor and spirit of the novel intact? It will be hard, and though I am generally optimistic about Parks’ involvement, there is precedent for a bad adaptation of Native Son already.

There was a made for TV movie of the novel in 1986, which I have yet to watch, even though it appears to be dumped on YouTube in various lengths. The film starred Oprah (!) among other well known actors, but this is not the adaptation of which I speak. A stage adaptation has been done several times, notably adapted in part by Orson Welles, but I am not interested in this, either. There was a version made in 1951 which starred a 43-year old Richard Wright as the 20-year old Bigger. It was directed by Pierre Chanel, filmed in Argentina, and savagely edited to appease 50s-era American censors. The film was recently found and restored to a 107-minute print which you can read about here.

Chanel wanted to make a kind of film noir version of the novel, which makes a certain kind of sense, since film noir and Naturalism overlap in stylistic ways. Yet the bizarre adaptation and laughable performance of Wright himself make the film a curious artifact, rather than anything approaching a serious text. The film turns poor domestic worker Bessie into a jazz singer, and Bigger seeks her help in covering up what he did, rather than roping her into his scheme and then killing her. With the recent attention paid to this film, the new adaptation will have even more baggage to contend with, especially with regard to what it chooses to cut out or change. The changes in Wright’s film adaptation, which he wrote himself, empty out most of the serious thematic concerns: violence against women, racist mistreatment at the hands of the law, white institutional racism, etc. And because something must be cut out of a lengthy novel in order to adapt it for the screen, Parks’ screenplay will undoubtedly have glaring omissions. But what will be taken out, and what will the effect of those omissions be?

We just have to wait, but I am really excited to see what happens.


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