A deeply disappointing but nonetheless fascinating film adaptation of black author Richard Wright's 1940 literary masterpiece. Shot on locations as diverse and surprising as Argentina and the South Side of Chicago (where the novel's action takes place), Wright himself plays his main
character, Bigger Thomas, a young black whose frustrations with racism explode into violence. Hired as a chauffeur by a rich white family eager to help him out of the slums, Wright soon finds that his main duty is to drive the family's wild daughter Wallace wherever she feels like going. Wallace
uses the fact that Wright is intimidated by her to ensure his silence when she goes off to visit her boy friend, Michael, a labor organizer (whose Marxist philosophies are much more apparent in the novel, as were Wright's) whom she has been forbidden to date. Wallace and her beau fill Wright's
head with confusing notions of equality between the races and classes. Naturally, Wright's character is a bit suspicious of these two young white people's motives, and he becomes even more confused when it appears that Wallace is making subtle sexual advances toward him. One night, Wright finds
himself driving a very drunk Wallace home. Not wanting her to get in trouble, he carries the unconscious girl to her bedroom. Before he can leave, Wallace awakens from her drunken stupor and Wright panics, thinking the girl will scream at the sight of a black man in her bedroom. Before she can
utter a sound, Wright tries to muffle the girl's voice and accidentally kills her. Knowing he is doomed to hang for killing a white woman, Wright covers up his crime by disposing of the body in the furnace and then framing her boy friend on a kidnaping charge. This throws off the police for a
while, but reporters soon find the body, and Wright flees, accompanied by his girl friend, Madison. As the police close in, Wright's anger and paranoia consume him and he murders Madison for fear that she will betray him. Eventually Wright is caught, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death.
NATIVE SON is a moving tragedy in which all efforts of understanding between the races are thwarted because of skepticism, misunderstanding, and thoughtlessness. Michael and Wallace want to help Wright, but he does not conform to their idealized conception of the perfect black "victim" of white
racial and economic suppression. Wright is indeed a victim, but not one content to let others control his destiny, regardless of their good intentions. While the novel is a powerful and eloquent statement, the film version is less than successful. It is interesting and almost irresistible to watch
the author of this great literary work play his own very vivid main character, but Wright is simply too old (he was 42 when the film was in production, while Bigger is no older than 21 in the book) and has limited ability to be able to bring all the nuances necessary to the role. While the rest of
the cast is fine, director Chenal's visual techniques are flat and uninteresting, barely disguising the cheapness of the production. The script itself has problems, with the more intense scenes of the novel toned down for the screen, and the left-wing political motivations are practically
nonexistent. Wright rejected communism shortly after the publication of his novel. NATIVE SON is as important and vital a novel today as the day it was published, and it cries out for a film version featuring actors and a director who will do it justice.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: A deeply disappointing but nonetheless fascinating film adaptation of black author Richard Wright's 1940 literary masterpiece. Shot on locations as diverse and surprising as Argentina and the South Side of Chicago (where the novel's action takes place), Wr… (more)