‘Native Son’ Newly Restored, Uncensored Now Streaming
Richard Wright’s 1940 novel and 1951 film adaptation are worth revisiting
Friday, September 25, 2020
“Intruder in the Dust” (1949)
“No Way Out” (1950)
“I am Not Your Negro” (2016)
Richard Wright’s book "Native Son" was published in 1940 and made into a film in 1951. Now you have the opportunity to see the fully restored and uncensored film of "Native Son" through Kino Marquee.
The story behind "Native Son" is almost as interesting as the story writer Richard Wright crafts.
"Native Son" had the honor of being the first book by an African-American author to be selected for the Book of the Month Club but it was only approved after certain passages were removed. Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre created a stage play from the book in 1941 and Jacqueline Najima Stewart (co-curator of Kino Lorber's Pioneers of African American Cinema) informs us in the intro to the film that "white southern playwright Paul Green, who was adapting the novel for the stage, tried to tone down the Wright's existential edge but producer [John] Housemen refused to dilute the content and worked on the play with Wright in secret."
That Houseman-Wright collaboration became the basis for the 1951 film made by French director Pierre Chenal in Argentina where Wright had taken up residence. But in order to screen the film in the U.S. more than 30 minutes were excised. Perhaps all this reflects how provocative Wright’s story was.
The complete version of the film seemed lost but the combination of a 35mm original negative found by the Library of Congress and a complete 16mm film print of the original Argentinian release discovered in Buenos Aires by film archivist Fernando Martin Peña, were used to create the current Kino Lorber restoration.
The new restoration offers the most complete version of the film ever shown in the United States and is presented in association with the Library of Congress, Peña and Argentina Sono Film.
'Native Son's' controversial ideas
Wright's book, and the subsequent film, center on Bigger Thomas, a Black man living in Chicago. An opening narration describes the beauty of the city but also states it has ugly secrets: "Here is Chicago’s black belt, a prison without bars. Here behind an invisible color line live half a million black people."
We find Thomas living in a poor neighborhood where he has to hunt down rats that are so commonplace they have names. Thomas gets a job working as a chauffeur for a wealthy family whose daughter, Mary (Jean Wallace), wants to be friends with Thomas. She and her boyfriend, Jan (Gene Michael), insist they don't judge people by the color of their skin. The two try to spend an evening with Thomas at a club where his girlfriend, Bessie (Gloria Madison), is singing. But it proves to be uncomfortable for Thomas who is not sure what this friendliness really means, if it's sincere, and how it might be perceived by white society.
After Mary's drunken night on the town, Thomas is asked to carry her up to her bedroom at two in the morning, something he feels distinctly awkward and even fearful of doing. When Mary's blind mother enters the room, Thomas panics and accidentally kills Mary while trying to keep her quiet. This is not really a spoiler since that information is presented in the film's trailer and what caused some of the controversy about the book back in 1940.
When questioned about Mary's death, Thomas explains, "I was scared. All my life I heard of Black men being killed because of white girls."
Wright looks to how racism and the limitations placed on African Americans could impact someone like Thomas. He gives us a morally complex and deliberately challenging film.
A little more than a decade later Sidney Poitier would capture everyone's hearts with his performance in "Lilies of the Field" and give us an almost saintly Black figure that white audiences could easily embrace and Black audiences could rally around as a hero.
But Wright wanted to explore something more complicated. He wanted us to be able to empathize with Thomas but to also be troubled by his violence. He wanted audiences to understand the inequities of urban African American life as witnessed by Thomas, and how generations of institutionalized racism and brutality can breed violent tendencies and moral confusion. He wants also us to see how the consequences of racism are not always easy to predict.
But Wright and his book also received criticism from the Black community (James Baldwin famously denounced it) for serving up what it saw as caricatures and providing a story that tapped in the worst fears of whites. And while it is valuable to read the book and watch the film knowing the criticism, it is also important to respect Wright's own experiences and how he translated them into literature and film.
"Native Son" may seem crudely made to modern audiences, some performances lack polish and dialogue sometimes feels stilted. But there’s a raw power in the point of view it shares, and there are moments of stunning imagery as well. In the introduction for the restoration TCM host Eddie Muller points out that this is a film noir, and indeed it is. Not only in terms of the visual style but in terms of moral ambiguity.
Seeing this film more than a half century after its original release the most striking thing is how resistant to change the systemic racism it depicts has been. In some ways we have come so far since 1940 (could Wright have imagined a Black president?) yet advanced so little (Wright would not have been the least surprised by what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery or Elijah McClain).
Wright's book and its film version are important documents about the African American experience.
The restored "Native Son" is available through Kino-Marquee and is expected to screen virtually through a San Diego-area cinema in the near future.
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