“Native Son,” the 1951 film version of the groundbreaking Richard Wright novel, never got a fair shake in the United States.
Wright, who was a Communist Party activist before leaving the party in 1942, was blacklisted in Hollywood and under FBI surveillance. And his novel about a Black man who turned to violence after suffering America’s systemic racism was deemed unsuitable for a film adaptation by many.
Wright left the United States for Paris — and then moved to Buenos Aires. While there, producer James Prades proposed making a film version with Belgium-born director Pierre Chenal. But they had a problem. No actor wanted to star as Bigger Thomas, the main character of “Native Son.” They feared being blacklisted. And that’s why Wright, who was in his 40s, ended up playing the role himself, with filming taking place on Argentinian sets.
Studios refused to release “Native Son” in the United States, but it eventually was released by the independent Classic Pictures. Starting his week, a restoration of the film will be screening at the Austin Film Society website, austinfilm.org/virtual-screening/native-son/
The restoration allows the movie to be seen as it was intended, without the censoring by regional boards in the States, and it’s based on a 16mm print of the original Argentinian release as well as a 35mm duplicate negative of an uncensored cut in Puerto Rico, according to press materials accompanying the restoration.
The movie is more important as an historical artifact than it is as a cinema experience. Wright had no acting experience before filming, and it shows as he plays a man much younger than he actually was.
But that’s not the point. “Native Son” makes an unmistakable argument that’s still raging today — that the United States is systemically racist. And for that reason, this film should be recommended.
For those who are unfamiliar with the plot, “Native Son” focuses on a family of four who live in a one-room tenement on the South Side of Chicago. Bigger Thomas is the oldest son, with a brother and a sister and their mother. The father is dead.
Bigger dreams of flying airplanes and escaping the every-present squalor. But the avenues for advancement are obviously closed to anyone who is Black. He has a girlfriend, Bessie (Gloria Madison), who’s starting out as a nightclub singer, and he shares his dreams with her. But he and she know they’re just dreaming.
Things start to change for Bigger when he gets an offer to be a chauffeur for the wealthy Dalton family. The Daltons talk of having a deep interest in the lives of “colored people,” and they’re what you’d call liberal for the times, although highly condescending. It drives Bigger sort of nuts, but he tries to put up with it.
Trouble ensues, however, when Bigger is asked to drive the Daltons’ daughter, Mary (Jean Wallace), to a university event. Mary is a wild thing, and she doesn’t want to go to any school function. Instead, she tells Bigger to drive to pick up her boyfriend, a Communist organizer, before heading to a nightclub.
Bigger is well aware that he’s in dangerous territory — that a Black man hanging out with a white woman is nothing but trouble. But Mary and her boyfriend don’t seem to have a care in the world and proceed to get very drunk.
What follows is a nightmarish series of events.
The movie is in black and white, and it has the unmistakable feel of noir. Kino Lorber Repertory is distributing the restored film. The film is preceded by a special introduction by film historians Eddie Muller (Film Noir Foundation) and Jacqueline Najima Stewart (co-curator of Kino Lorber’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema collection), courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.