Native Son (1951)

Native Son (1951)
  • 240
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release year: 1951 ()
  • Running time: 104 min
  • Original Title: Native Son
  • Voted: 240

In 1940s Chicago, a young black man takes a job as a chauffeur to a white family, which takes a turn for the worse when he accidentally kills the teenage daughter of the couple and then tries to cover it up.

1Richard WrightBigger Thomas
2Jean WallaceMary Dalton
3Nicholas JoyHenry Dalton
4Gloria MadisonBessie Mears
  • A definite curio by 7

    Author Tom Clancy has been very critical of the way his novels, including "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger," have been adapted for the screen, and he has been especially critical of the casting, believing that Harrison Ford is too old to play his CIA agent hero, Jack Ryan. Perhaps Clancy should do what black novelist Richard Wright did in 1950: play the lead role in the film version of his novel. The novel in question is "Native Son," the now classic tale of Bigger Thomas, a poor black youth who takes the job of chauffeuring the daughter of an affluent white liberal, only to kill the girl out of fear rather than malice.

    The movie was produced on a miniscule budget in Europe, and despite poor acting, low-class production values, and a generally amateurish tone, it is of definite interest due to the casting of Wright as Bigger. Sure, Mickey Spillane would play his creation, the hard-nosed private detective Mike Hammer, in 1963's "The Girl Hunters," but whatever Spillane's merits as a writer, he has never been considered a "serious" novelist. Wright, on the other hand, was the first black author to break from the literary ghetto in which Negro writers were usually placed, and be acclaimed as a distinguished man of letters regardless of race. His is a prestigious name in literature, so it comes as quite a shock to see this great writer willing to be seen as a bad actor. But Wright is surrounded by thespians who are just as bad, and can't boast of having written a literary classic. Most of the cast is as amateurish in their portrayals as the stock company Edward Wood employed in such laughably inept productions as "Plan 9 from Outer Space" and "Bride of the Monster." The overall production is not as shoddy as Wood's films, but the middle-aged Wright's portrayal of 19-year-old Bigger Thomas is more than enough to thoroughly sink it.

    Still, this is a definite curio, and worth a look for anyone as interested in literature as they are in cinema.

  • well-intentioned, but squirm-inducing curiosity of a troubled era that may by 5

    This movie had an incredibly troubled history. Hollywood would not touch Native Son even during its brief 1940s flirtation with liberalism. A 1944 Orson Welles stage production with Canada Lee playing the teen-aged gang member Bigger Thomas, though critically successful, had been quashed by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Wright's novel was sold through the Book of the Month -- its first African-American author -- and won incredible notices. It also scared the daylights out of mainstream white culture. He sympathetically portrayed an African-American murderer (the Legion's stated complaint about the play), unambiguously showed white female desire for a black male and gave a rather jaundiced view of the left-wing, jazz-loving bohemia hidden among the youth of the very wealthy. (And by portraying the thrill seekers of the left as merely that, Wright also alienated many of his Communist and left-wing friends.) It was all too much for Hollywood. Still, a number of people tried to get a film of the play made independently with Canada Lee eventually opting to shoot in Argentina with a French director (not Welles). However, Lee couldn't get out of the U.S. (Oddly enough, he and Sidney Poitier were sneaked into Apartheid South Africa as indentured servants that year so they could appear in Zoltan Korda's masterful adaption of Cry, The Beloved Country.) At the last minute, Wright was called upon to play the lead role and he is terrible! The great writer could not act. He does the one thing a serious black actor should never do -- he pops his eyes constantly. In fairness, the production values are outstanding. This is basically a crime story with a racial subtext and Chenel nails the film noir ambiance. Unfortunately, the supporting actors are Argentinian with Americans dubbing their voices. And there's Wright, already over 40 -- too old to play bigger teenager Thomas -- popping his eyes. When I saw this screened at the AFI, Stanley Crouch, who had written a laudatory essay about the film, spoke afterwords. I seriously wondered if he had seen the movie before he wrote about it. Crouch mumbled throughout his question and answer session and the audience kept telling him to speak louder. The movie deserves preservation simply because of its historic significance but not a wide audience. Read the novel instead.

  • Better Than I Expected by 6

    As an admirer of Wright's written work - especially "Native Son" - I had incredibly low expectations for several reasons: there was next to no budget, the cast and crew (including the starring role) were all amateurs, the director was not American and had never made an American film before this, the film had to be shot in Argentina, and "Native Son" is such a dense, complex, psychological piece of work to begin with.

    But, if you look at this as a simple B-movie melodrama with a racial subtext that was badly missing from almost all of the films of its day, it isn't bad. In film, you don't get motivation, you get action, and the novel "Native Son" was all about hidden motivations and desires. Maybe it was a bad idea to even attempt to make Wright's novel into a film, but one must give him and the filmmakers credit for trying. In the era just before the McCarthy hearings and the blacklist, a feature film released to the public that was even half as potent as Wright's novel would have been commendable.

    An idea actually occurred to me while watching this: someone should make a feature film about the making of "Native Son." From what I've read, the production faced many obstacles and setbacks, both physical and ideological, and I think the story behind this would be fascinating - especially the difficulty of an author playing his own creation while trying to maintain his artistic integrity. Of course, Wright's life was fascinating in and of itself. Spike Lee, are you listening?

  • strange but courageous production about racism by 7

    Piere Chenal was a specialist of crime movies since the 30's but never directed a masterpiece (except "La Foire Aux Chimères, still not available on DVD) but all his movies were intelligently shot and "Le Dernier Tournant" (first movie adaptation of "The Postman Always Rings Twice") was admired by Orson Welles. During WWII and after, Pierre Chenal shot in Argentina some nice crime movies. "Native Son" was adapted and played by his author, Richard Wright, and shot first in Chicago then in Argentina. The movie had some success in south American countries but did nothing in USA where 40 minutes were cut. Richard Wright never saw the final cut. Pierre Chenal didn't want that cut print to be exploited in Europe. In the 80's, a 90 minutes print was found and exploited. If you want to know more about this very strange shooting, I advise you to read the six pages comments by Pierre Chenal in the book "Pierre Chenal" (collection 24 souvenirs / seconde). You will discover a very bright director and maybe want to discover his movies.

  • An interesting and odd little film... by 7

    ... partially because the subject matter at the time it was made prevented it from being produced in the United States. Instead, much of it was shot in Argentina with Argentine actors and actresses who later had to be dubbed because you couldn't have people with South American accents in a film that was set in Chicago.

    This is based on the novel by Richard Wright, and he adapted it for the screen and played the lead, African American Bigger Thomas, the oldest of three children of a widow woman whose husband was lynched in the South. The family fled to Chicago, and is living in squalor.

    Bigger is a bitter fellow, considering the hopeless poverty the family is living in, and immediately he is established as a gray character. He procures a hand made gun and with his "gang", plans the armed robbery of a white owned establishment. This never goes off, basically because the group chickens out at the last minute. Yet when he is offered a job opportunity, chauffeur for the wealthy Dalton family, he accepts and shows up for the job.

    But events overtake Bigger on the first day. He is supposed to drive the Daltons' college age daughter to the university library and wait for her, but she demands that he instead pick up her date, a labor leader and a radical, and drive them to black Chicago night spots. What is he to do? If he refused, Mary could get him fired. If he obeys, her dad could get him fired. He takes the path of least resistance and takes them to the night spots. When he returns home with Mary, she is so drunk she cannot stand up. If dad finds out what Bigger did, he is fired, so he carries her to her bedroom. Trying to get out of one bad situation leads to a worse situation which leads to Bigger accidentally killing Mary. He then disposes of her body in the most gruesome way possible. Her total disappearance the next morning has the wealthy parents believing she's been kidnapped. What happens from there? Watch and find out.

    The point is, Bigger's behavior, at every turn, has been completely dominated by fear, and warranted fear at that - the fear of what happens to a black man if he is even suspected of having harmed a white girl at this point in history. He had my complete sympathy in this situation, but then he does some things that somewhat made me lose that sympathy. It really does take some unexpected turns.

    The production values were actually quite good. Time was taken to make buildings, the mansion, and the nightclubs look authentic. Perhaps lots of it was shot on location or the equivalent of it in Argentina. One of the big problems is that Richard Wright is 43 years old and playing somebody 20 years younger. And although he does look young for his age he does not look like he is in his twenties. Another problem is that some of the actors are stiff and the dialogue a bit stilted. Yet it is very much worth seeing. Kino Lorber recently restored this film to its original length since almost half of it was missing from what was allowed to be seen in America because of the censorship of the era.

1Antonio Merayocinematographer
2Juan Ehlertcomposer
3Pierre Chenaldirector
4Jorge Gárateeditor
5Jaime Pradesproducer