The Man Who Was Almost a Man
Drector Pierre Chenal né Cohen had fled the Occupation but returned after the war to find no willing moneymen for Native Son, co-written with its also Paris-resident author Richard Wright. So the film was made back in Argentina and released there, as Sangre negra, and in Europe but, thirteen minutes censored out, in America exhibited only at some art houses before disappearing for lack of distribution. In the Masterworks section of the 2012 New York Film Festival, the uncut original hundred-four minutes screens for the first time in its author’s homeland.
Wright himself disliked this cinema adaptation. He would have liked even less the 1986 PBS American Playhouse take, bursting with big names but emasculating his stark sociopolitical concerns. Such themes had foredoomed the more biting Chenal version here, but limited budget, black and white melodramatic pacing and scripting, awkward direction and inferior acting are what contribute to its shortcomings as pure film.
Though young looking, Wright at forty-three simply is not right as the twenty-year old protagonist Bigger Thomas with the suggestive name. To be fair, the non-actor writer has stepped in late, when forty-four-year-old first choice Canada Lee, the lead in Orson Welles’s 1941 Broadway Native Son, was blacklisted, dying and stuck in customs in Pretoria after Cry, the Beloved Country.
A shock to Wright’s fellow Party members and to the non-Marxist middle class alike, the 1940 novel had a twofold thrust. The indignities and fears thrust upon the protagonist and blacks as a whole, “who lived somehow in Western civilization but not of it,” are based on personal experience in Mississippi and in Northern cities. Second was the extended trial section -- influenced no doubt by Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, also filmed in 1951, as A Place in the Sun -- with its deterministic statement of inhuman conditions leading to inhumanity and its criticism of capitalism, and Bigger’s romanticized late self-realization.
Onscreen, the not-so-young young man is surly, bitter, quick to anger, and involved in petty crime. Her husband killed by whites down South, humble Christian mother Hannah (Willa Pearl Curtis) moved with three children up to Chicago’s rat-ridden South Side ghetto. Buddy (Leslie Straugh) hero-worships his older brother, while straight-arrow Vera (Lidia Alves) voices snooty remarks about Bigger’s girlfriend Bessie Mears (Gloria Madison).
Singer-aspirant Bessie may work in womanizer Ernie’s (Charles Simmonds) club, but she is sweet, unobjectionable and too devoted for her own good to Bigger, who bosses a couple smalltime thugs and owns a pistol. Nevertheless, despite a prior conviction for theft, social services finds him a job as live-in uniformed chauffeur of the liberal-to-a-point Gold Coast Daltons, slumlord Henry and blind Helen (Nicholas Joy, Ruth Robert). Mainly he is to drive their wild only child Mary (Jean Wallace) to classes at the university. She immediately makes him unwilling accomplice to her subterfuges and, with her idealistic Communist beau Jan Erlone (Gene Michael), they catch the drinks and show at Ernie’s.
The terrible dialogue and delivery are not here to undercut liberal platitudes, nor, however faithful to American fact, are the later racist lines any dramatic improvement. Acting from fear and conditioning, Bigger commits the most serious crime of all and, terrified, points fingers in another’s direction. Fleeing towards what promises to be a Cody Jarrett “Top of the World” finale, he is cornered and caught. Racist police hector, lynch mobs gather, reporters rap lingo that would embarrass cub Jimmy Olsen, and liberals are squeaky Boy Scout sincere. The trial is pointedly for the killing of a white woman but not a black one.
More a curio than memorable cinema, this full Native Son is still welcome. It's more worthwhile as a picture of attitudes and anger of that time (and arguably today) than as film per se but nevertheless is one that people should see.