“Native Son”: Escaping the Statistic
A film review from a philosophical standpoint, looking from the outside-in.
Disclaimer: This article gives spoilers and analysis of the film“Native Son” (2019).
I may be late to the party since the movie came out in 2019, and shortly after watching it, I realize the story is based off of the book, “Native Son” by Richard Wright published in 1940. But the modernized story will never lose relevance as it has progressed 80 years, and is today, still relevant.
On HBO Max, I simply scrolled upon the movie and decided to give it a chance due to the notable cinematography of A24 and iconic actor Ashton Sanders, who starred in the award-winning film “Moonlight” (2016).
As the credits rolled after “Native Son” (2019), it dawned on me that this is the closest I could get to understanding the position of a Black man.
I never will understand the thought process and fear that is instilled from the rightful trauma of the Black community, but this movie compelled me enough to emotionally internalize the experience of the main character’s struggles due to his race.
The story takes place of a 20-years-young Black man, the oldest child with no male role model, placed under a whirl of pressure. He has a supportive mother, oldest of his siblings and a newly-entering stepfather who offers him a promising job as a driver for a wealthy white family.
With his friends he is pressured, on the other end, to rob houses and live- as Bigger put it, “the common denominator” of Black men.
We see early on- this push and pull between who he should be, and what would be the most authentic choice for him to make in his life: being a statistic of Black men dabbling in crime- as the label is placed subjectively from the majority (white people), or live under the control of white people.
Bigger was faced with the question of free-will and battling the concept of self-identity. Which is the most authentic way to live? Is there any means of authenticity; specifically as a Black man in America?
We see Bigger for a moment, always trying to do the right thing after getting the job under Mr. Dalton; even if that means attending parties with his daughter Mary and taking her to hang out with friends instead of attending her classes. Ultimately, this is the opposite of the last driver of the Dalton family- who was said to graduate with a business degree. Although, whatever he does never seems to feel like the “right” way. This is, with his friends telling him that he is suppressed by a white family, or Mary telling him to go against her father and party or hang out with her.
After safely getting Mary home, even going out of his way of taking her up to her room for the second time, Bigger insists that she goes to bed. But by this time, Mary’s mother could hear her and calls out to her. Completely intoxicated and off drugs, she resists going to bed and attempts seducing him. But the only thing we could see on Bigger’s face was the fear of him getting fired.
Speaking of- “out of fear,” he suffocates her to death because he was terrified of her mother finding out that she has drugs in her system, or even worse, catching Bigger in the room with her. Because if anyone were to see that, they would have thought that he raped her, which later comes out as his thoughts when talking to Mary’s ex, Jan.
And there, lies the true downfall of the movie.
While watching Bigger drag her out of the room and down the stairs, I thought to myself:
“He could have left her in the room and called it a drug overdose. Anything other than burning her body along with his clothes, shoes and other belongings.”
But no. He assumed that they would have pointed fingers at him regardless of where he was, and this is something I kept conscious of in his mindset while this was happening.
Sure, Mr. and Mrs. Dalton are culturally aware, but that doesn’t mean America as a majority is; that whoever defends him or not will take into account his skin color.
The panic completely took over his body. He denied any sense of help, even when Jan offered him a lawyer. They would happily defend a white man, but in America, it would have been a completely different case with Bigger. He was fully aware of this.
As Bigger pulled out a gun on Jan in the midst of offering this help, he represented himself as a man that he struggled to escape from in the beginning.
He then tried to make a run for it with the one person throughout the whole movie that he could actually trust: his girlfriend Bessie.
In the planning of their escape, he was battling telling Bessie that he killed Mary, afraid of judgement. He felt no one would protect him, or see any forms of good in his character if he had told anyone what truly happened. The fact that he wanted to keep his job; the fact that he was trying to keep Mary and himself out of trouble wouldn’t have mattered to anyone- as she was still murdered regardless of the storyline. There was no chance because of the color of his skin and the assumptions that are held with it.
The next morning after Bigger almost strangled Bessie to death, he again, battles back and forth with his identity, apologizing and distraught with his choice directly after. But there is only so far he could run as the cops finally catch up to Bigger. As he turns around, slowly raising his hands out of his pockets, he is shot instantly.
Again. This is the representation of the challenges that Black people face in America.
Sure, he did murder Mary Dalton, whether it be an accident or intentionally, but what truly is the difference to a Black man? To a white man, there is a chance with the representation of lawyers. Although internally, what were the circumstances that he was facing after the murder; even before the murder? Was any of it fair to begin with?
At the beginning of the movie, it gave the audience a quick glimpse at the novel titled, “The Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison- who also wrote an essay titled, “The World and the Jug” arising one of three questions:
“[…] why is it that so many of those who would tell us the meaning of a Negro life never bother to learn how varied it really is?”
Bigger Thomas is one who is culturally different from the majority, but also being in the skin of as Black individual who is told to be and do certain things. The storyline of “Native Son” (2019) brings up the philosophical notions of free-will, self-identity and existentialism; but societally as an African American at a young adults’ years of growth, such as the early 20’s.
Whether it be a novel in 1940 or a movie in 2019 facing a year such as 2021, this is a topic that has not changed, and will remain as relevant as long as racism is an issue in America. It is not only the social injustices, it’s deeper, such as the thought process of the Black community in America.