Six Authors in Search of a Character: Part 2—Richard Wright

Sean Gill

“Six Authors in Search of a Character” is a six-part series of essays, each about the rare occurrence of an author playing on screen a character they originally created in print. Typically, an author’s appearance in film is a fleeting cameo or a casual in-joke, but every so often there comes along a role that’s more meaningful, elemental, or mythic. Each of these characters possesses a quality that might only have been expressed by their originator, and each grapples with an idea—or, more likely, an obsession, addiction, or destructive urge—which offers insight into the author’s personality and process. You can read Part 1 here.

1951

Richard Wright is “Bigger Thomas”

“I became convinced that if I did not write of Bigger as I saw and felt him, if I did not try to make him a living personality and at the same time a symbol of all the larger things I felt and saw in him, I’d be reacting as Bigger himself reacted: that is, I’d be acting out of fear if I let what I thought whites would say constrict and paralyze me…The writing of it turned into a way of living for me…I kept out of the story as much as possible, for I wanted the reader to feel that there was nothing between him and Bigger; that the story was a special première given in his own private theater.”

            —Richard Wright, in his 1940 essay, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born”

Bigger Thomas slouches around his rat-infested apartment, the raging ocean beneath betrayed only by the occasional scowl. In a ballcap, white sweater, and leather jacket, he stomps through the alleys of Chicago, wavering between confidence and petulance. When he wears his chauffeur’s uniform, eager to please his white bosses, he is trepidatious, quiet, downright meek. There are two separate Biggers for two separate worlds.

There is a shrill excitement in driving Bessie (Gloria Madison), his nightclub-crooner girlfriend, around town in the boss’s luxury car. His smile is genuine, childlike, and a mile wide as he rides a roller coaster, thundering down the rickety track, his girl cuddled up beside him. He kisses her on the beach, in the surf, prefiguring Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity.

Back on the clock, he must chaperone the boss’ daughter, Mary (Jean Wallace), as she goes out clubbing with her boyfriend. There’s an incredible dimension to Bigger’s eyes as his worlds collide: he pretends not to know his own girlfriend while his clients gawk, appreciatively, at her singing. He is simultaneously ashamed by his connection to his community and embarrassed by the performative deference he must show his patrons.

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Mary has too much to drink, and the boyfriend’s stop comes first. Bigger must drive Mary home alone, to her mansion on the hill, and carry her up to her room. The optics are troublesome. Here, she starts coming on to him—in the book, she’s practically comatose—but the end result is the same: when her blind mother comes poking around, Bigger covers her face with a pillow so she doesn’t make any noise. He is backed into a wall, by a white and probing hand, his eyes wide with fear.

Next, he is a noirish Frankenstein, in silhouette, carrying a limp female form in his arms, descending a shadowy staircase. Mary’s corpse is headed for the furnace. Desperation brings out a different quality in Bigger. The despair and worry are as churningly palpable as an ulcer. He begins barking his lines in a piercing whisper.

Things fall apart. Bigger attempts a blackmail scheme, and, believing Bessie to have betrayed him, he kills her, too, and flings her body down an elevator shaft. This scene of perceived betrayal is played within a hallucination, illustrated like the Dali dreamscapes in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. A shirtless Bigger, wearing the raggedy trousers of a sharecropper, digs with his hands in a pile of coal. He follows this vision to a cotton field, where he breathlessly embraces his father, long-dead, “killed by white folks.”

In reality, Bigger is soon cornered by the police, climbing higher and higher across a crumbled brick and wrought-iron landscape of abandoned factories and tenements. It is a physically demanding role; you perceive a visible and wincing pain when the police blast him with a firehose. The desperate, concluding shootout is not so different from that of a million James Cagney pictures, excepting, of course, the howling lynch mob who lingers at the sidelines. Bigger’s trial does not last long; the nature of justice is always in doubt. Bigger is twenty years old. The man playing him is forty-one, but he knows him better than most.

The novel’s path from print to screen is itself the story of a native son whose relationship with his country of origin was complex (Wright expatriated from the U.S. in 1946), living in a no man’s land, alternatingly rejected and claimed by the land of his oppressors. For almost a decade, Richard Wright had sought to make a motion picture out of Native Son (1940), but Hollywood producers demanded radical changes, to say the least (one of whom even suggested making Bigger and his family white). At Orson Welles’ urging, Wright adapted it for Broadway, but after World War II, he reassessed the racial climate and lost all hope of there being an American film version. Three years of negotiations with European producers (including Roberto Rossellini) failed to generate any traction, but, finally, in 1949, he struck a deal with Argentinian and Uruguayan producers and a French-Belgian director (Pierre Chenal). Wright wanted Canada Lee for the role (the former boxer who played Bigger on Broadway), but Chenal saw a gathering star power within Wright himself, who grew more and more passionate as the project grew closer to fruition.

After principal photography, in a 1950 interview with the Oslo Afterposten, Wright recalled, “When Chenal proposed the role to me, I thought he was kidding. When I understood that he was serious, I thought that I should first learn to act. ‘Not at all,’ said Chenal. ‘You just need to lose twelve kilos.’…I wrote the dialogue. The producers and the director gave me carte blanche in whatever concerned my role as actor. If the film is bad, it’s all my fault.”

Wright does exude screen presence, and while the film’s Bigger lacks the crudeness and blunt physicality of the novel (Wright shows us more of Jekyll than Hyde), he is no worse an actor than anyone who appeared in a B-noir from Monogram or Republic Pictures. Still, the film faced an uphill battle, and while it was celebrated in France (“He can act, that man,” raved Simone de Beauvoir), the truncated version that landed in American cinemas was a critical and financial failure, and perhaps is best assessed by its poster’s tag-line: “The dynamite-loaded story of a Negro and a white girl!”

In his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright explained that he based Bigger, in part, on five figures from his youth in Mississippi, the only blacks he knew who “violated the Jim Crow laws of the South and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell.” They ranged from childhood bullies to rent-strikers to fare-jumpers to a man who once used his knife to defend a plum seat in the white section of a Jim Crow streetcar. Their fates ranged from insane asylums to prisons to being shot in the back by the police. In analyzing the impression that the ur-Bigger made on him, Wright wondered, “maybe it was because I longed secretly to be like him and was afraid.”

So many authors who act must reconcile being a person who types and retypes prose in a quiet room with the character who takes decisive action. It’s interesting that Wright’s Bigger feels defined not by nihilism or pure id, but by a kind of reluctant inevitability. There is, of course, Wright’s personal reluctance to take center stage and the certain knowledge that Hollywood would have fouled up the material. This dovetails with the Greek tragedy of Bigger’s inescapable fall, and Wright’s pure exhaustion of having to endure it all, to be shot by firehoses, to cling to the bars of a jail cell, to be mocked before the white mob. Bigger is certainly not Christlike, but there’s a quality of a Passion Play—Wright’s passion and Bigger’s—to the proceedings, on camera and behind it. In the film, we may not see the five original Biggers who made such an impression on Wright, but we surely see the world that made them, the world that destroyed them.

Sean Gill is a writer and filmmaker who won Michigan Quarterly Review‘s 2020 Lawrence Prize, Pleiades’ 2019 Gail B. Crump Prize, and The Cincinnati Review’s 2018 Robert and Adele Schiff Award. He has studied with Werner Herzog, video edited for Netflix’s Queer Eye, and was directed by Martin Scorsese (on HBO’s Vinyl). Other recent writing has been published in McSweeney’s Internet TendencyThe Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Threepenny Review, and at Epiphany, where he writes the “Lurid Esoterica” column.

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