Native Son (1951)

Poster for Native Son (1951)

Here’s another film I saw at the Noir City 2013 festival. This is a flawed and fitfully gripping movie that resulted from a fascinating production. I should mention that I’ve never read Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, but I suspect this adaptation sticks pretty close to its source, since Wright co-wrote the screenplay and, in one of the odder aspects of the production, also plays the protagonist, Bigger Thomas. The director was a Frenchman, Pierre Chenal, but the film was mostly shot in Argentina after the US government put pressure on France and and a French studio backed out of the project. Amongst other things this meant that some of the characters were played by non-English-speaking actors who were then overdubbed by American voice actors later, although it also sounded as though a few of the characters were French actors speaking slightly accented English. In any event, these quirks of the production were preferable to what American studios such as MGM had proposed to do to the story, which included recasting the black characters as whites.

To say that this story was too hot for the Hollywood studios is quite an understatement. Pretty much on every level it is a fierce indictment of the Jim Crow system that ruled America at the time, and it bluntly portrays the poverty and oppression of the black ghetto in Chicago in ways that Hollywood would have found completely impossible. Even worse, it shows the only white solidarity with the black population coming from Communists. The final straw is that it shows a black man killing a white woman as a tragic accident caused by the racial animosity of whites for blacks. The murderer is depicted sympathetically, and the whites who want to lynch him are depicted as hateful monsters.

It’s pretty potent stuff, even today, despite some flaws. Chenal was an experienced director, and the film has a sophisticated look. Some of the actors, including Jean Wallace, who plays the white murder victim, were Hollywood actors who knew their way around the camera, but others, including Wright in the lead role, were amateurs whose performances are inconsistent. The film was heavily censored for its US release, and Noir City director Eddie Muller says that there’s still some footage missing from the version we watched last night, which might explain why the concluding courtroom scenes felt truncated. (A 16mm copy of the complete original cut has been discovered by the same Argentinian who discovered a 16mm copy of the nearly complete original cut of Metropolis a few years ago, and Muller hopes to have the missing parts restored.) Even so, the finale felt like a didactic speech more than a dramatic resolution, with salutes to idealized Communist solidarity and direct appeals for racial tolerance from Bigger’s white attorney.

Is it film noir? Muller made the case, and it certainly had noir aspects, both in the visual style and in the desperate, fatalistic air surrounding Bigger’s self-defeating criminal life. However, the noirish aspects are probably the least interesting thing about it. The reason to watch this film is because of the raw portrayal of racial relations in Jim Crow America from a black perspective. The film may have some problems on a dramatic level, but as a document of the times it speaks loud and clear. Highly recommended, if you get the chance.


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