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“A contemporary update of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” is necessarily an overhaul. To transport the action of the novel—published in 1940, set in the Jim Crow nineteen-thirties, rife with melodramatic energy that is positively Victorian—to the twenty-first century requires not just a rejiggering of its particulars but a reconsideration of its essence. Thus, the “Native Son” that premières, on HBO, this weekend—a movie, directed by Rashid Johnson, from a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks—is a feat of literary criticism almost before it is a work of drama. Where the novel starts, with a bleak clang—“Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng!”—of the antihero’s alarm clock, the movie begins with a statement of his readiness: “I don’t need an alarm clock to wake me up.” It is awake to the ways in which the story, as invented from Wright’s mind and reiterated in earlier adaptations, lulls its observer into easy satisfaction.
Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is a young black Chicagoan who accidentally kills a white woman, Mary Dalton, the daughter of his employer. After a night of drinking, she’s helplessly sloppy, and he helps her to bed; fearful that Mary’s blind mother will hear her daughter and suppose that Bigger is despoiling her white womanhood, he suffocates Mary with a pillow while trying to keep her silent. During a subsequent manhunt, with his senses roused by the act of killing, he slaughters his black girlfriend. He goes to death row, but his soul has long since been snuffed out by internalized loathing and general disgust.
When it was published, “Native Son” was a best-seller and was inducted the canon because it found a form to discuss American racism, and it remains a crucial text of the black experience, but asterisks append to its classic status. On the surface of the prose, the paragraphs drag. The book, which has the texture of an existential penny dreadful, could be cut in half just by excising its many repetitions, which do little other than establish a heavy mood. Deeper trouble lurks below the surface of the novel, where there lies, as James Baldwin put it, “a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy.” “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin’s famous essay on “Native Son” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” shrewdly describes “Native Son” as a book so intent on capturing Bigger’s dehumanization that it neglects to grant him any humanity in the first place. “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended,” Baldwin writes. It’s a fatal fault, but, still, there is elemental terror in a horror story of a man deformed into a monster.”
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