‘Native Son’ is the heartbreaking story of a black man succumbing to circumstances intended to hold him down in America. In the story, the main character Bigger Thomas accidentally kills a white woman then ends up raping and killing his black girlfriend, who loved him tremendously.
The rape/murder scene in Richard Wright’s original story was a lot for women, especially Black Women, to digest and that is what prompted director Rashid Johnson to remove the scene from the HBO adaptation premiering this weekend. Johnson told Essence, “I was born and raised by a Black woman who was a feminist and theorist. It’s intolerable for me to think about that level of violence toward women in any way [while] allowing me to empathize with that protagonist.”
The decision to remove the scene was made not only by Johnson but also screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks. “We initially did include the rape and murder of Bessie. And after reading that version of the script…so much of his existential journey around his exposure, and the class shift and opportunity, and the aspects of race that are pervasive in this story, they become insignificant when we create a character who we find that we’re incapable of tolerating,” Johnson said.
He continued, “I believe in 1939, Richard Wright writing this story, and even people beginning to consume it, there’s a tolerance for violence against women that is just not as present today.”
Johnson also explained why he created an Afropunk version of Thomas, played by ‘Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders. “I wanted to tell the story of a challenging character, and a character who is exposed to circumstances and conditions that challenge him, and challenge his decision-making. But I was not invested in telling the story of a monster.”
He added, “The inclusion of the rape and murder of Bessie produces an irredeemable monster for me, somebody that I am incapable of tolerating and incapable of bringing to the screen with the intention that I have for this character.”
‘Native Son,’ also starring Sana’a Lathan and David Alan Grier, premieres April 6th at 10 p.m. ET.