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Wright's novel `Native Son' brought to the screen

By David Sterritt / December 26, 1986

In the novel called ``Native Son,'' first published in 1940, black author Richard Wright brought off a striking literary feat. On one hand, he told an uncompromising tale about a young black man who murders a white woman, burns her body, sends a ransom note to her parents, kills his own girlfriend to silence her, and winds up on death row after a furious flight from the police.

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At the same time, Wright managed to depict the society that molded this man - and the racism that pummeled his personality into a twisted, tragic shape - as more culpable and condemnable than the criminal himself.

Scholars still debate the question of whether social and cultural forces should share the blame for antisocial behavior. Not so questionable is the ferocious power of Wright's narrative, which - like Bigger Thomas, its antihero - is shot through with a visionary sense of rage.

As written by Richard Wesley and directed by Jerrold Freedman, the new screen version of ``Native Son'' reproduces enough of the novel's force to make it one of the year's most searing and provocative movies.

It would be stronger if it didn't abbreviate and soften Bigger's outlaw activities - perhaps to assure a mild PG rating and avoid too negative or sensationalistic an image. Then again, in this age of Hollywood excess it's refreshing to find occasional pictures (like this and ``The Mosquito Coast,'' also based on a book) that play down the more violent aspects of their sources. In any case, the makers of ``Native Son'' stay true to Wright's convictions even when they skirt his more extravagant metaphors.

The story takes place during a Chicago winter in 1940. Bigger Thomas is a restless 20-year-old with an eighth-grade education and a dim future. His first action is to battle a rat in the dingy room he shares with his family. Next he visits a pool hall to plan a robbery that doesn't come off.

Soon after, he decides to take what could be the most positive step of his young life: showing up at a rich family's house to accept a job. The money is good, the conditions are comfortable, and the employers - the prominent Dalton family - are liberal white people who pride themselves on helping the black community.

Yet this is when the nightmare starts. Mary, his boss's daughter, insists on socializing with him - not realizing the fear and distrust of whites that have been pounded into him by years of bitter experience.

Later that night she passes out from drinking, and Bigger must carry her to her bedroom. Her mother, who is blind, comes to the doorway. Terrified that he'll be detected, and knowing that any white person would suspect him of rape or worse, he jams a pillow into Mary's face to keep her quiet. She suffocates, and the rest of his short-lived criminal career grows from panicky attempts to cover up - and perhaps to profit from - this grotesquely accidental murder.

The key to Bigger's personality (and to Wright's purpose in devising the story) is his response to the killing.

Although he's profoundly shocked and surprised by it, Bigger also feels a sense of freedom and authenticity for the first time in his life.