Spoilers for “Native Son” ahead.
The new cinematic version of “Native Son,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last night (January 24), updates Richard Wright’s 1940 novel to address contemporary racial and social justice issues. For screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”) and debut feature director Rashid Johnson, that meant cutting one of the book’s most violent sequences.
The artists tell USA Today that they ultimately scrapped a scene in which protagonist Bigger Thomas rapes and murders his girlfriend, Bessie Mears, while evading arrest for accidentally smothering his wealthy White employer’s daughter to death. Their film instead shows Bigger (Ashton Sanders, “Moonlight”) choking Bessie (KiKi Layne, “If Beale Street Could Talk”) before releasing her when the police arrive. Johnson attributes the decision to the current climate around how media and society depicts violence against women.
“Our intention was to give Bigger an opportunity to be both complicated and [empathetic] simultaneously, and that was just a step off of a cliff that didn’t allow us to tell the story in a [contemporary] way that we thought would facilitate conversation,” he explained. “Because that level of violence against women at this time, in this narrative, really would’ve hijacked some of the more fascinating topics that we begin to explore in this story.”
“It would’ve hijacked his character,” Parks added. “That’s not who he is.”
Anonymous sources told Deadline yesterday that HBO Films acquired “Native Son” for an eight-figure sum. HBO’s corporate communications department appeared to confirm the sale by retweeting Deadline’s story.