In Richard Wright’s 1939 novel Native Son, Wright forced America to reckon with its ruin via his flawed, rapist and murderous protagonist Bigger Thomas. The beloved author wasn’t interested in creating a perfect lead. Wright saw intrigue in imperfection and wanted the country to witness what happens when a system is built to brutalize its own. Thomas was so ungodly, James Baldwin initially referred to Wright’s work as a pamphlet, not a protest novel.
First-time filmmaker Rashid Johnson along with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Park collaborated and brought Bigger to 2019 in the HBO adaption of the book. Played by Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), Bigger is other. His green hair, black nails, and affinity for Beethoven and heavy metal is a direct slap in the face to the stereotypes surrounding young black men, particularly from Chicago’s South Side. Eighty years after the novel’s debut, Johnson and Parks crafted a fuller, more nuanced character, allows the audience empathy, despite unintentionally killing a white woman.
VIBE sat with Johnson and Sanaa Lathan, who plays Bigger’s mother Trudie, at HBO’s Manhattan headquarters and discussed Bigger and Trudie’s relationship, his struggles and if America is really prepared to deal with a guilty black man.
According to Johnson, he thinks so.
VIBE: When bringing Bigger Thomas to 2019, why was it important to make him a black kid from Chicago with green hair, dark nails who’s into heavy metal and also likes Beethoven?
Rashid Johnson: Having him as a black kid from Chicago mirrors what [Richard] Wright delivered to us initially in his 1939 book. One of the things I thought about when contemporizing this novel was using it as an opportunity to expand on what we’re accustomed to seeing as far as the history of the black protagonist. It just felt like this is a chance to introduce the audience to a character we rarely see on screen, which is someone like Bigger who’s invested in different cultural signifiers like punk. The other things that he’s interested in are things that black kids for years have had an investment in and have helped build and frame but we rarely get to see that contribution. So it was interesting to say, Who is this guy?, and how do we get to expand on characters in our community. Pushing Bigger from 1939 to 2019, let’s see what and how we can expand on who he is.
Sanaa Lathan: As soon as I saw Bigger, I was excited by the fact that he was such an individual and not a quote, end-quote stereotype of what we’re used to seeing on screen. Bigger is not an archetype. Literally, he was who he was completely and totally and I think that kind of highlights the tragedy that no matter how different he seems to be, he’s still a black man in America.
RJ: Very much so.
The bond between Big and his mother is strong. As he’s leaving, your character says “be careful.” But it’s not be careful and look both ways when you’re crossing the street. There was a deeper meaning behind that. How did you craft your role so that way your two words “be careful” would be so heavy?
SL: Just being conscious as a person in America right now, you have to be tapped into what’s happening. I’ve been heartbroken for the last several years. I’ve played roles where I have to deal with this subject a lot. Shots Fired, I’m playing a cop who’s dealing with police brutality and murder and that has been in consciousness for years. Even when I’m driving my car and I see a cop behind me, there’s a fear that comes up that’s bigger than fear of getting a ticket.
SL: I also identify with her as a mother who loves her son. Just thinking about all mothers who want her kids to survive and thrive and be good and do well and that’s all she wants for him. That was easy for me to tap into and then when I met Ashton [Sanders] it was immediate chemistry. I wanted to be a nurturer to him. I wanted to take care of him. I had that compassion for him just as a young, black man coming into this business. I was even surprised by my own concern. I kind of interrogated him the first couple of days about his life. So having that chemistry with somebody just makes your job easy.
What I also loved is that as his mother you said “be careful,” but your character didn’t beat the alternative out of him. There are times being “different” in black households isn’t always accepted. Sometimes it comes from a place of, ‘because you’re different I know how you’re going to be treated so let me make sure to assimilate you.’ Did you take any of that into consideration when playing this role?
SL: Absolutely. But I think that this… Well, her name is Trudie. What’s her name in the book?
RJ: She was Mama.
SL: [Screenwriter] Suzie-Lori [Parks] said she’s Trudie after Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, which I think is so deep. Trudie is different from the character in the book, but I feel like Bigger is her son. You can see it in the decor of her house. There’s a level of consciousness and education that she has. I can just imagine her encouraging him to be who he is, and yet still wanting him to be cautious and be careful.
In the book, Bigger rapes and kills Bessie. In the film, that part of the book is missing. Why?
RJ: You know honestly, it was something that I and Suzan-Lori Park found so challenging. We weren’t able to empathize with Bigger the way we wanted to emphasize with him. We weren’t able to tell the story of him engaging in this kind of exposure to the different class structure. We weren’t able to talk about issues around race and systemic racism etcetera while he committed an act as violent as he did toward Bessie. I think it’s an honest interpretation, but in 1939 acts of violence towards women, however problematic, where not seen in the way that we see them today. I think I can say that and I just think that’s really true. We read that book and negotiated that violence while still dealing with Bigger’s complexity is one thing, but we didn’t feel comfortable continuing the story with that as part of it. We really wanted Bigger to shine a light on things he wouldn’t have been able to shine a light on had that continued to be part of the story.
It’s already challenging for some to empathize with black men and women who are wrongfully convicted, but Bigger was and is guilty.
How do you think this film will be digested?
SL: It’s interesting. I read Native Son when I was in junior high school. I just remember being stunned by it and those images would instantly come back to me when the title would come up. Then when I watched it at Sundance inside that big beautiful theater I was taken through this rollercoaster of emotions. When I left, I didn’t know what to feel. It took me a couple of days. We had press the next day. We had a lot of discussions the first time I heard Rashid talk about. I think that’s great. I think that’s what art should be. You have to sit with it. You have to think about it and think about what you feel. You have to discuss it. I think it’s going to do that for a lot of people.
Do you think America is ready to deal with a guilty black man?
RJ: That’s a great question.
SL: That is a great question.
RJ: I think that they are. I think they’re ready to deal with a character who’s a human being, who makes a mistake. When you synopsize the story and you just introduce to it someone and say ‘Oh yeah, this guy does this and they told a story about it’ that may challenge some people and they’ll say, ‘why are you watching that? There are so many stories of innocent black folks that we could tell.’ I think that those stories are important and I’m glad they’re being told. But I think that’s it’s problematic that we need a black man to be innocent all the time. When you have someone like Philando Castile or other brothers who’ve had engagements with the police who have been wrongfully dealt with in very violent ways, the fact that the black community has to cross their fingers and hope the brother never smoked weed, is obnoxious.
It’s limited. It’s a muted life.
RJ: So then the brother that did have a prior conviction for something and has a violent engagement with the police, then what? We’re supposed to not give a sh*t about him? That doesn’t make sense to me, and I think that it doesn’t make sense to a lot of folks who come across it.
In the film, you actually see Bigger put Mary’s body into the furnace. You just admitted you couldn’t justify putting Bigger raping Bessie in the film. Why did you decide to put that visual in the film?
RJ: I think we needed to struggle with Bigger. I think we needed to go on that journey with him, that very complicated and difficult journey of what he was going to do with the body and see how challenged he was. It’s interesting, it’s really something that I would love to delve into in regards to the human psyche. People are more troubled by his relationship to the dead body then they are smothering her when she’s alive. At that point, it’s just a body and he’s really finding a way to try to get rid of it so that he’s not exposed to a system that’s definitely not just and definitely not going to here him or what happened. He says to himself, ‘There’s no way I go to the other room and say ‘You won’t believe what happened.’ I was trying to keep her quiet, I happened to smother her. I’m really sorry.’ He realizes at that point that he has to get rid of the body.