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. That can’t be argued. However, it has had the sad
misfortune of also being extremely unlucky at the movies.
There have been 2 film versions, and both of them were
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 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 filmmaker Pierre
Chenal, is the one that really 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 that opens
the film), as well as to raise the money to make it, the film was completely
shot in and around Buenos Aires,
However that wouldn’t have been a problem as 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), literally more than twice the age
of Thomas in his novel, who is 20, and was too well fed and obviously too well off
to play the role.
Even worse… well to put it simply, Wright was awful as
He couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. As proof,
take a look at film clips of Wright’s screen test below, which speak for themselves.
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 Thomas,
would be a selling point.
But the film is simply bad. Sort of like a car wreck 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.
The film had an unfortunate life after it was made. It
was cut from its original 107 minutes length
to just under 90 minutes, and the missing sequences are long gone, most likely destroyed or thrown
away. Reportedly there was a 105 minute
version at one time, but no one has ever seen it, to my knowledge.
And it was, not surprisingly, barely released in the U.S. Since then, the
film has fallen into public domain, with the possibility of a restoration very unlikely.
But despite all that, it’s still very much worth watching
just to see a rare example of forgotten black film history. Just don’t expect a
masterpiece. Scale down your expectations… way down. A restored version of the original 107 minute film (by the Library of Congress) had its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art last month, and will tour the country throughout the year, so check your local listings, and look out for screenings in your city if you’re curious.
President Obama however won’t have to worry about that because, well, he received a complete and restored print of the film during his Argentina trip a few days ago, as a special gift from the Buenos Aires Film Museum. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the full version was found and restored in collaboration with the Buenos Aires Film Museum, and delivering a new print as a gift to Obama at the time of his visit to Argentina was planned.
“Rescuing, preserving and restoring films does not enjoy much visibility,” museum director Felix-Didier told Los Andes newspaper. “This was a privileged opportunity to learn more about this process in which research plays a key role. In this case, Fernando Martín Pena was largely responsible for the film’s recovery and for making agreements with the U.S. Library of Congress, the Film Noir Foundation and other institutions that made this restoration possible,” he added.
It’s not said whether President Obama has already seen the film. But now that he has an official copy of the complete and restored print, maybe he’ll tweet his thoughts if/when he does screen it.
In the meantime, watch Wright’s test footage for the film below.