Kino Lorber Repertory offers a new, uncensored restoration of the 1951 Native Son. It’s the first film adaptation of Richard Wright’s celebrated 1940 novel about Bigger Thomas, the archetypal doomed urban black American youth. That Bigger still represents the most exploited social figure of the 21st century ignites the timing of this re-release.
In the original novel, the story of Bigger’s committing a Dostoevskian crime, facing a Scottsboro-like trial, and being executed made a startling turn: It included a renunciation of the Communist social saviors who had attempted to manipulate Bigger as a victim of capitalist oppression — a situation still relevant to the current usurpation of black protest by the radical Left. But that narrative development has always been elided in film versions of Wright’s screed.
Wright’s purpose — to expose the social conditions of poverty and racism — always fascinated American liberals yet was never in sync with Hollywood. Orson Welles had produced a pared-down stage version on Broadway in 1941 (the same year as Citizen Kane), responding to the book’s enormous social impact. But the 1951 movie adaptation was made by French director Pierre Chenal, filmed in South America and exhibited in the U.S. only briefly and with edits. This new restoration comes from the Library of Congress in association with Argentina Sono Film.
Although Kino promotes Native Son ’51 as a missing link in the history of film noir, it is actually a film maudit — cursed from its beginning in Wright’s imagination by the incapacity of American cultural institutions, primarily run by liberals, to accept the full scope of Wright’s vision. (Subsequent film adaptations — one featuring Oprah Winfrey as Bigger’s mother in 1985, and the recent HBO Afro-punk update — are hideous illustrations of liberal self-congratulation.)
Bigger Thomas was always a political victim, but he keeps coming back again as a cultural victim: The infelicities of the ’51 renegade production meant that the 17-year-old Bigger role was changed to 25 to accommodate Wright, who was 43 at the time and clearly a man of such intellectual eminence and social bearing that he could not pass for an uneducated youth. Wright’s earnest performance as Bigger seems retarded, turning one of literature’s most naïve protagonists — devised out of rage, as an embodiment of fear — into an improbable, no-way-out victim. Every close-up, even when scaling the top of a water tower to evoke James Cagney at the end of White Heat, conveys the no-hope fatality of the novel’s tragedy. It’s not so much poetic or expressive as banal.
Wright’s hang-dog expression belies his own intellectual capacity. He looks perpetually nervous — or is it that inexplicable, “scared-for-no-reason” Richard Pryor fright, as the Wayans brothers have called it, mocking Hollywood’s existential hypocrisy, the industry’s propensity to turn black geniuses and hustlers into dupes?
One watches this impaired film of an authentic classic of American literature for science, because the book was always taught in schools, alongside Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, even before today’s disingenuous complaints about “being seen.” Now, “being seen” means the continued immiseration of black characters (just like hailing Killer of Sheep as readily as Get Out).
Native Son ’51 falls between those post-WWII genres the Protest Picture and the Problem Picture — one stating a social issue, the other pretending to solve it — and, finally, is insufficient as either. This dilemma is a reminder that James Baldwin, in his famous essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” complained that the literary establishment “actually reinforce[s] . . . the principles which activate the oppression they decry.”
Now the Bigger Thomas archetype that had so powerfully formed late-20th-century perceptions of character-defining social conditions has warped into the Millennial martyr stereotype — the source of public unrest as succinctly described just this week by sports commentator Jason Whitlock:
LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, the NFL, the NBA, BLM organizers and other celebrity influencers have normalized non-compliance with police instructions. They have made heroes of Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner and other black criminal suspects who have disobeyed police instructions and been injured or killed in the process.
That worried look Wright wears in Native Son ’51 seems to convey the great author’s anxious desperation to make a heartfelt statement. Wright understood that the process could be usurped, exploited by political organizers, agitators, and spokespeople devoted to the image of black ne’er-do-wells and miscreants who may be as benighted as Bigger Thomas but lack his nobility. When it comes to race tragedy, our media institutions still can’t get it straight.