I have written about this very strange film in the past. Not that it’s some undiscovered or overlooked classic. Just the opposite. It’s a genuine disaster, but a fascinating one, and one that gained a sort of minor cult following. But that can be easily understood considering the film and who’s in it.
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 two film versions made so far, 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 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 Chenal, is the one that really needs to be seen to be believed.
Though the novel is set in Chicago, it would’ve been impossible to shoot the film there (with the exception of some travelogue footage at the beginning), and raise the money to make it. So 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. 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 well off to play the role.
Even worse… well to put it simply, Wright is awful as an actor. It’s amazing that the producers thought he was convincing enough to play Thomas. But then the filmmakers probably hoped that 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 either. 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. Check out his test auditions below.
The film had an unfortunate life after it was made. Over the years, it was cut from its original 105 minutes length to just under 90 minutes, and that version eventually fell into public domain (You can even find it on Youtube). And for years it was widely believed that the cut scenes were lost forever, and that the original longer version of the film would never be seen again.
Well that was true until 2012 when a restored digital copy of the film was presented to President Obama as a gift, during a trip to Argentina that year. There had been a major restoration effort for the film as a result of efforts by the Library of Congress, using a 16MM print discovered by Argentine film historian Fernando Martin Peña, and a 35MM print from the National Archives in Puerto Rico (Film Comment details the story).
Today the Cannes Film Festival announced that it will screen the restored original version of Chenal’s “Native Son” starring Wright, as part of their Cannes Classics annual series of screenings of recently restored domestic and international older films of significance.
A debate to be had is whether the film is worth screening at such a prestigious festival as the Cannes Film Festival. However, despite all the film’s problems, it’s still very much worth watching just to see a rare example of forgotten black film history. I just hope audiences aren’t expecting expect a masterpiece.
Although this is not the end of “Native Son,” since as we recently reported that yet another film adaptation is in development. Bow and Arrow Entertainment announced its acquisition of “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. Bow and Arrow’s Matthew Perniciaro and Michael Sherman are producing.
Watch Wright’s test footage below.