Few films have experienced a more tortured history than the 1951 version of “Native Son,” based on Richard Wright’s 1940 novel. While Wright’s work achieved best-seller status and would be adapted into a Broadway production by Orson Welles and John Houseman, Hollywood studios would only consider a cinematic version if the central character of a disenfranchised African American was changed into an ethnic white man.
After World War II, Wright’s Communist background effectively cancelled any Hollywood version. Instead, Wright – who relocated to Paris after the war – teamed with French director Pierre Chenel on a film version. But pressure from the American government prevented the duo from getting the story made by European studios, so they relocated to Argentina and shot the film in Buenos Aires with a mostly amateur cast – no professional American actors would risk involvement during the McCarthy era. A few location shots were filmed in Chicago without permission from the city, including some astonishing views of the Black slums.
Alas, local censorship boards would not allow “Native Son” to be shown in American cities unless a multitude of edits were made – mostly removing the more virulent racist elements of the story and dialogue, including endless use of the N-word and references to lynching and interracial romance. The film was barely seen in the U.S. and the surviving prints were based on the censor-driven mutilations.
A newly restored version is now in virtual cinema release, combining footage from a 16mm Argentine print of the original uncut edition with an incomplete 35mm negative. Although there are a couple of brief moments with the less-than-pristine 16mm footage abruptly appears and disappears, this presentation is light years removed from the cruddy public domain copies that circulated for many years.
This restored offering gives a greater degree of brutality to “Native Son” that the censors from nearly 70 years ago could not tolerate. “Native Son” offers a dismal American society where Blacks exist in a separate and severely unequal society, barely acknowledged by whites except as menial help or objects of pity by hypocritical liberals. The film also provides a strong defense for the ideal of racial equality as espoused by a white Communist organizer and a defense lawyer who is obviously Red-sympathetic. This was uncommon in an era when American films viewed Communists and their apologists with scorn.
The restoration also brings Pierre Chenel’s nightmarish vision of a racist landscape to its boldly noirish fullest. Art director Gori Muñoz effectively recreates the worst of Chicago’s slums in a Buenos Aires studio Antonio Morayo’s cinematography captures the bleakness of Wright’s story. Anyone who only knows the film from its public domain prints will be greatly surprised at the excellence of the production design.
But even a long-overdue restoration cannot dislodge the big stumbling block with “Native Son”: the miscasting of Richard Wright in the role of Bigger Thomas, the central character. Wright envisioned Bigger as a 20-year-old in his book, but he was well into his forties (and looked it) on screen. He was also an inept actor, unable to plumb the bitterness and terror that sealed the character’s fate. Wright’s presence was by default rather than design – the original choice was Canada Lee, who starred in the Broadway version, but he was facing blacklisting challenges at home and was not available. The writer’s performance dilutes much of the power that the film has to offer. Wright would later admit his casting was a mistake, and the absence of a strong actor to anchor “Native Son” in place results in an interesting curio instead of what should have been an underground classic.