Native Son (Chenal, 1951)

Is it possible for a film to be simultaneously mediocre (bordering on bad) and essential?

Native Son has a lot of stuff wrong with it as a film. Wright was too old to play Bigger Thomas, the character he created. The film identifies him as twenty-five, though he is only twenty in the novel. Wright was in his early forties when the film was made, the penning of the novel already a decade in his past. It is a young man’s tale, the bitterest American bildungsroman that I can think of. Bigger comes into his own as his life is ending, fueled by the realization that he never really had a chance to squander.

Native Son is a gritty, pessimistic, deterministic novel. Movies can be made from such material, but its tone is out of step with the Hollywood productions of the 1950s. MGM purportedly offered Wright a boatload of money for the rights but wanted to make the character White. It’s easy enough to see why, in such an environment, Wright would want to retain as much control over the character as he could. Yet even with Wright in the lead, elements are softened. Bessie’s death is changed to strangulation and Bigger is given a more palatable motive — he believes she has turned him into the police. Mary and Jan take Bigger to a boxing match where they cheer as two Blacks pummel each other. The robbery plans are elided. The backstory of Bigger’s father being lynched in the South is emphasized.

It’s surprising, though, how much makes it in given the time period. Mary’s death and Bigger’s panicked dismemberment of her body remains, as does Bigger’s jailhouse schooling of his communist lawyer. There is no way Bigger will be allowed to live — the only choice he has is the posture he takes towards his own death.

But even with a surprising amount of fidelity, it’s not a novel that translates well to the screen. So much of Native Son‘s power is visceral because of Wright’s ability to convey the feelings of Bigger. The film is faithful to plot, but the screen prettifies poverty and elides brutality.

Why is it essential then? Every now and hen you get a glimpse of the deeper horrors of the book, even if they are just passing allusions to what the novel insists is omnipresent…the casual racism of the police, the incessant mocking of the reporters, the unconscious condescension of Jan, more grating than even the slumlord’s paternalistic hypocrisy.

“All my life I’ve heard of Black men being killed because of White women…” Bigger is not a slave, and other works are more explicit in their depictions of racial violence, but Native Son more than any other novel viscerally channels what it must feel like to live with racism every day. How a 50s film could convey that I know not, but I understand (or think I do) why it was important for Wright to get as much of it on screen as possible. This is a poor representation of the novel, but at least it’s a true one. Wright would not let the film be appropriated or co-opted by white culture and end up being about something else.

I have a feeling that if I ever meet Wright in heaven, I’ll be a little ashamed about how little I did to combat racism in my life. To quote Carmela’s psychiatrist in The Sopranos — “one thing you can never say…that you haven’t been told.” Native Son, better than any novel I know, makes an uncomfortable, persuasive claim about how much Black violence is fueled by White racism. It doesn’t ask you to excuse Bigger — he never begs for mercy. It only asks that you look in the mirror while apportioning blame and judge yourself as scrupulously as you judge others.

Native Son is available to watch in virtual cinemas (beginning September 25) through Kino Marquee and is presented by Kino Lorber Repertory with Library of Congress, Fernando Martin Peña & Argentina Sono Film.

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