Watch Richard Wright’s Screen Test for ‘Native Son’ Film Adaptation + Watch the Film in Full
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Watch Richard Wright’s Screen Test for ‘Native Son’ Film Adaptation + Watch the Film in Full

Native SonRichard

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 120 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.. 

Watch Wright’s test footage below. You can watch the film in full here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlVxOnQWu-w.

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