Richard Wright’s seminal novel Native Son, first published in 1940, is one of the most important books ever written about racism and the black experience in America.
It also has been extremely unlucky in the movies. There have been two film versions and both of them pretty lousy. There was the 1986 version made for PBS which did get a brief theatrical run with Victor Love as the lead troubled character Bigger Thomas, and Oprah Winfrey, in one of her very first film roles, as his downtrodden suffering mother (“My baby! My baby! Please suh my baby ain’t meant no harm!“…or lines to that effect).
But the earlier 1951 film version directed by French director Pierre Chanel is the one that needs to be seen to be believed.
Though the novel is set in Chicago, and obviously well aware that it would be impossible to shoot the film there (with the exception of some travelogue footage not shot by the filmmakers that opens the film), as well as to raise the money to make it, the film was completely shot in and around Buenos Aires, Argentina.
However that wouldn’t have been a problem so much, if it wasn’t for the fact that Wright himself played the lead role of Bigger Thomas. No doubt this was a problem for a couple of reasons. At the time Wright was in his early 40’s (though he looked even older) and literally more then twice the age of Thomas in his novel, who is 20.
Even worse… well to put it simply, Wright is AWFUL as an actor. He couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. As proof, below is a film clip of Wright’s screen test which speaks for itself. It’s amazing that they thought he was convincing enough to play Thomas. But then the filmmakers probably thought having Wright (who was by then an internationally known acclaimed writer and activist) play the lead role would be a selling point.
But the film is a disaster, though a fascinating one, nevertheless. Sort of like a car accident you can’t bare to watch, but you can’t turn your eyes away from. No doubt it’s a sincere effort, but the clumsy, heavy-handed approach (granted it’s a heavy-handed book), and Wright’s amateurish performance, sink the whole endeavor like a stone. And wait until you take a gander of the “happy times down South” flashback sequence for which there are no words adequate enough to describe.
The film had an unfortunate life after it was made. It was cut from its original 120 minute length to just under 90 minutes, and has never been restored to it’s original version. No doubt the missing scenes are long gone and most likely destroyed or thrown away (though reportedly there’s a 105 minute version in existence though no one has ever seen it to my knowledge). And it was, not surprisingly, barely released in the U.S.
It is in the public domain now which means you can probably find it on DVD, or a crummy scratched up print of the film somewhere, and it’s sometime shown on TV, usually on local PBS stations during Black History Month. But it’s worth watching anyway to see a rare example of forgotten black film history. Just don’t expect a masterpiece. Scale down your expectations… way down.
The opening of the film:
Richard Wright’s screen test: