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.
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.
By striking out at a world that has stepped on him since he was born, he has risen above his seemingly inescapable status as a dull, passive cog in an arbitrary, unfeeling society that has assigned him and his ``kind'' the lowest of all possible positions. Bigger has acted, and that incontrovertible fact - seen through the rudimentary instincts forced on him by his background - takes on an importance quite independent of the action's horrifying nature.
When he wrote the novel, Wright knew he would be attacked for focusing on a loser like Bigger instead of a black person who overcomes adversity. In a 1940 essay called ``How `Bigger' Was Born,'' he stated this argument himself: ``Why don't you portray in your fiction the best traits of our race, something that will show the white people what we have done in spite of oppression?''
Wright felt he had known people like Bigger Thomas all his life, though, in many guises and circumstances. He was so fascinated by this personality type, and so anxious to understand it, that he went vigorously ahead with his project.
The importance of fathoming Bigger, he wrote, was greater than anything black or white readers would try to make of him as a character. It was also greater than any ``political analysis designed to explain or deny him,'' and even greater than Wright's own ``sense of fear, shame, and diffidence'' in writing about him.
Another reason for showing Bigger as ``brutalized and depraved'' was well stated by scholar John Reilly when he wrote (in an afterword to the novel) that sympathetic characters elicit pity. This emotion can purge hostility and encourage empathy. But there's a danger, too: Pity can be ``a consoling reassurance which leads us to believe that we have understood, and that, in pitying, we have even done something to right a wrong.'' Wright's stark novel allows the reader no such escape from harsh realities.
The film version of ``Native Son'' puts Bigger on screen as a fully rounded human being. Therefore it can't help making him more sympathetic than he seems in the book, which selectively describes his thoughts, emotions, expressions, and body language. Still, there are times in the movie when newcomer Victor Love seems an ideal Bigger, able to draw us into the deepest recesses of his personality without sacrificing his hard edge of defensiveness and aggression.
The supporting cast is less consistent, partly because it includes celebrity faces that interrupt the naturalistic mood of this otherwise modest production. Carroll Baker seems particularly lost as Mrs. Dalton, and Oprah Winfrey sentimentalizes Bigger's worn-down mother.
By contrast, old pro Geraldine Page makes every gesture count as an Irish maid; Elizabeth McGovern is competent as Bigger's victim; and Matt Dillon gives his first mature performance as her radical boyfriend. Also affecting is Akosua Busia as Bigger's forlorn lover.
``Native Son'' is an uneven film - artificial at times, and lapsing into overstatement (like the book) as Bigger waits on death row and talks with his compassionate left-wing lawyer. But the issues it raises - of race relations, social oppression, and dubious tools like capital punishment - are as urgent today as they were 46 years ago. And the seriousness of its purpose can be felt in every frame.