Divided into three sections: Fear, Flight, and Fate, Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, took an existentialist approach to Blackness in America. It’s right there in the titles of the section, and it’s baked into every frame of the 1951 cinematic adaptation with Wright starring as Bigger Thomas, the movie’s central character.
Wright co-wrote the screenplay for Native Son with French director Pierre Chenal, a known director of films noir—Chenal adapted James M. Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1939, seven years before MGM got their hands on it. Not that Chenal was known as a noir director (no one at the time was, the moniker came later), but Chenal and Wright dropped Native Son right in the middle of the cycle. And the movie’s reliance on chiaroscuro lighting and fatalistic acceptance aligns Native Son with the likes of He Ran All the Way, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Berlin Express, and many more.
Set in Chicago, Native Son opens with the disparity of the haves and the have nots with a camera pan showing the tony side of Chicago, followed by the South Side’s dilapidated tenements. “There are no bars on these prisons,” the narration says. Thomas and his family, as well as everyone else living here, were part of the Great Migration. But looking at the landscape, it’s hard to deny George Wallace’s claim that “the whole United States is Southern.”
Exhibit A: The name “Bigger Thomas.”
“That’s a funny name,” Thomas’ employer says. “Who gave it to you?”
“They just gave it to me,” Thomas replies.
But they don’t call him “Thomas.” It’s either “Bigger Thomas” or “Bigger”—with the white characters omitting the “B” sound in such a way that it’s hard to distinguish “Bigger” from a similar sounding n-word. That word gets tossed around too. So do “boy” and “coon.”
When a wealthy white family, The Daltons, hires Thomas as their chauffeur, his first task is to take daughter Mary (Jean Wallace) out on the town. Mary is a drunk and a social justice warrior. Her boyfriend, Jan (Gene Michael), is a Marxist fighting to get Blacks upward mobility. Their first act: Take Thomas out to a club—a Black club where Thomas’ girlfriend, Bessie Mears (Gloria Madison), is performing. It puts Thomas in an uncomfortable situation with Bessie and exposes Mary and Jan’s over-eagerness to prove they harbor no racist thoughts. Yet, when Mary wants Thomas to join her in drunken revelry, she switches from singing a drinking shanty to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”
The racism in the first half of Native Son appears coded as if the white characters are trying to ignore the world they live in. But when the narrative shifts and Thomas finds himself on the run, the racism bubbles up bold and bald. It’s not a pretty picture, and Wright and Chenal intend it that way.
Native Son is not a perfect film—Wright’s limitation as an actor and Chenal’s apparent perchance for ham acting turns many of the characters into cartoons—but the movie is far more than a curiosity. The cinematography from Antonio Merayo is top-notch, and Wright’s writing is as brutal as it is blunt. There was no way they could have had it made in America, so Argentina ended up playing Chicago. Even then, the movie had a hard time in the states. Nearly 20 minutes of the film was cut—making the story almost incomprehensible—and Native Son died a quick death.
But, like all good movies, Native Son never fully disappeared from the minds of moviegoers. Using a 35mm duplicate negative from the censored cut, and a complete 16mm print, Native Son was reconstructed and restored by the Library of Congress in association with Fernando Martin Peña and Argentina Sono Film, bolstered by research from Edgardo Krebs. Kino Lorber releases the restored film in virtual theaters (including CU-Boulder’s International Film Series) with a bonus introduction from TCM hosts Eddie Muller, of the Film Noir Foundation, and Jacqueline Stewart, a film professor at the University of Chicago and co-curator of Kino Lorber’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema.
Native Son (1951)
Directed by Pierre Chanel
Written by Pierre Chanel and Richard Wright, based on the novel Native Son by Richard Wright
Produced by Jaime Prades
Starring: Richard Wright, Jean Wallace, Nicholas Joy, Gloria Madison, Gene Michael, George Rigaud
Kino Lorber, Not rated, Running time 104 minutes, Opens Sept. 25, 2020, in virtual theaters.