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 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 long-suffering mother.
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. 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, to put it simply, Wright was awful as an actor. As proof, take a look at film clips of Wright’s screen test below, which speak for themselves.
It’s amazing that the filmmakers thought he was convincing enough to play Thomas. But then they 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. 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.
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; although maybe today’s news of an upcoming new adaptation of Wright’s seminal book will make us forget the previous films.
Bow and Arrow Entertainment has announced its acquisition of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” for Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to adapt, and acclaimed artist/photographer Rashid Johnson to direct, marking his feature directorial debut.
No ETA or casting news at this time; and no other details are available.
Bow and Arrow’s Matthew Perniciaro and Michael Sherman are producing.
Certainly a project to watch going forward.
Watch Wright’s test footage below.