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. That can’t be argued. However, it has had the sad misfortunate 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 Chanel, 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, Argentina.
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 an actor.
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. And if you’re in New York, you should know that a restored version of the original 107 minute film (by the Library of Congress) will have its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art this Thursday, February 11, at 6:30 p.m. It’ll screen a second and final time on Sunday, February 14, 2:00 p.m. Click here for ticket info.
Chances are, this restored version will tour the country so look out for screenings in your city throughout the year.
Watch Wright’s test footage below.