Sunday, February 3, 2013

Native Son (1951)

NATIVE SON             B       
USA  Argentina  (104 mi)  1951  d:  Pierre Chenal 

Anyone who’s read Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son realizes what an incendiary work it is, actually divided into three sections, Fear, Flight, and Fate, an intensely engaging work where much of it is told in a naturalistic, stream-of-conscious style taking place inside the mind of the lead character Bigger Thomas, a poor and uneducated black youth from Chicago in the 1930’s charged with the murder of a wealthy white woman, where his second murder of a black woman is almost completely ignored, where Bigger is very much aware of how racial stereotypes play in the minds of white society, where historically blacks are routinely charged for rape in order to justify a white hysteria around any alleged crime.  In Wright’s mind, Bigger Thomas stands for that historical black male figure in both the North and South who has been picked up by police and hauled off to jail on trumped up rape charges, leading to a public outcry of condemnation, much of it fueled by racial overtones, described by Wright as a compilation of young black men “who consistently violated the Jim Crow laws of the South and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell.  Eventually, the whites who restricted their lives made them pay a terrible price.  They were shot, hanged, maimed, lynched, and generally hounded until they were either dead or their spirits broken.”  Anyone familiar with The Central Park Five (2012) case realizes how prevalent this persistent social pattern continues into the present, often leading to wrongful convictions of black males, where the jails are filled with similar convictions, often cast in racist overtones best summed up by “Well, it’s only a nigger,” where in their zeal to obtain high conviction rates, prosecutors have been known to cut corners and convict convenient subjects, often teenagers, many of whom have been bullied into marathon interrogation sessions leading to confessions.  Ten to fifteen years later, when DNA evidence shows they’ve convicted the wrong men, few in the criminal justice system seem to care anymore, as all they remember was the all-important conviction, which suits the law-and-order mentality of the electorate.  Wright’s novel challenges the idea of justice in a racist society, where white perceptions determine the outcome, from the newspaper reporters, lawyers, judges, and jury, where few, if any blacks could be found in the Jim Crow South.  The 1940 novel appeared on the “Book of the Month Club,” though in an edited version, the first bestseller by a black writer, while the film faced similar censorship and was cut from its original listing of 104 minutes in the Argentine version, streamlined to 91 minutes in the American version. 

The importance of the novel was particularly evident in the era in which it was written, as it lit a fuse that shocked many people, including people of left-leaning sympathies who were called out in the book as selling out the black man just as much as the deeply rooted racists in the South, as in the end, arrested black males continued to be stigmatized in the press by left-leaning white press publications that used racially lurid and inflammatory headlines to attract interest and sell papers, at the expense of those arrested.  Wright’s story was inspired by the 1938 arrest and trial of Robert Nixon, who confessed to five slayings and multiple assaults, though the Chicago police alternately beat him and offered him sweets and strawberry soda, depicted with racist imagery in the mainstream press with lurid descriptions of sex crimes, eventually executed in the electric chair at the Cook County jail in 1939.  The social controversy surrounding the book, prompting a scorching defending essay by the author himself "How Bigger Was Born" in March of 1940, made it impossible to ever make and/or release a movie in the United States, in much the same way author Richard Wright, a former member of the Communist Party and an avowed black Marxist, whose works were blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studios in the 1950’s, and fellow author James Baldwin, an avowed black homosexual, both outspoken intellectuals disappointed in the nation’s inability to hear voices of social protest, emblematic of what this book represents, were eventually forced to leave America altogether and move to France, which seemed to tolerate racial diversity without all the race hatred.  So it’s perhaps appropriate that the filmmaker chosen to make this film is, in fact, French, but also Jewish, where he was forced to leave Nazi-occupied France during the war and emigrate to South America, making several movies in Argentina where this film was eventually made. 

With that in mind, it might surprise people that the film’s opening is a veritable time capsule of Chicago in the late 40’s and early 50’s, capturing the architectural skyline and the fully lit-up downtown movie marquees at night which are seen repeatedly through rear projection images in various car rides.  The thriving street life, the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower, the CTA busses and elevated trains, the old Conrad Hilton Hotel and Buckingham Fountain are all given elaborate recognition, where people can see this and immediately relate to the Chicago they know.  But then the images shift to the South Side of Chicago, the poor black neighborhoods where people are stacked on top of one another, where kids play openly in the alleyways and on the streets, with dogs running freely, but also newspaper pages are left in the breeze on the sidewalks, where dirt and broken glass are more prevalent, also abandoned buildings and empty lots, as this is a decidedly poorer and filthier neighborhood than the picture postcard view of an immaculate downtown.  One of the things this film does well is differentiate between the two different worlds, presented almost as if they can’t coexist.  While Bigger is only twenty in the book, living at home in a one-roomed apartment with his younger brother and sister under his mother’s roof, he’s seen as little more than a sullen teenager whose constant anger and moodiness leave him drifting in a world of poverty and unemployment, alienated from the larger world around him.  Instead of an exasperated kid who doesn’t have the words to explain his inner anguish, in the movie he is played by author Richard Wright himself, where at 42 years of age he’s already a full grown man whose chief characteristic is being an overbearing bully, particularly to his girlfriend Bessie (Gloria Madison), always ordering her around, while remaining docile and submissive in the white world.  Wright’s performance in particular, the only one of his career, was singled out as being wooden and ineffectual, never conveying the complexity of the character, though this version of the film, both the American and the Argentine, was preserved by the Library of Congress in 2004, where the historical influence of the material outweighs any cinematic limitations, such as being made on the cheap.  Of interest, Native Son was directed by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and ran successfully on Broadway from 1941 – 43, and was Welles’s last real triumph on the New York stage.

Like the book, the film is presented in three segments, though they are untitled and run continuous, where the initial sequence is easily the best, where a series of events lead Bigger into employment as a chauffeur for a rich white family living in Hyde Park who have liberal feelings about blacks, seeing them as a disenfranchised people, so they give Bigger a chance even though he’s had a few run-ins with the police.  Bigger is stupefied by the behavior of their college-age daughter, Mary (Jean Wallace), whose sympathies for blacks (in the book) leave Bigger to believe she’s making sexual advances, toned down here, stripping the story of any Communist subplot and a scene where Bigger kisses the white girl, where instead she gets dead drunk and can’t stand on her feet, forcing Bigger to carry her upstairs into her room, where her blind mother walks in on them.  Bigger’s blind fear of getting caught in a white girl’s bedroom, growing up and hearing all the stories, knowing that’s the one thing that can get a black man killed, causes an overreaction, where he accidentally suffocates her while trying to keep her quiet.  Making matters worse, he throws her body in the incinerator and begins covering up his tracks with a series of lies.  Up to this point the film is a marvel of social provocation, and even interesting cinema, using several clever tracking devices, until it seems to run out of money and disintegrates into predictable territory.  Once the detectives and the white press get involved, exaggerated and way over the top, the story turns into a series of stereotypes, using cardboard characters whose opinions hardly matter.  Besides Bigger, Bessie is probably the best developed character, a singer in a jazz nightclub and crazy about her man, as evidenced by a unique scene of black lovers at the beach on Lake Shore Drive, but by the end she is overshadowed by Bigger’s turbulent world coming apart.  Nonetheless, his race to elude the police resembles Raoul Walsh’s earlier White Heat (1949) and Cody Jarrett’s climb to the top of a water tower, where the water hoses used by the police foreshadow the firehoses used during the Birmingham campaign in the lead-up to the 1963 Civil Rights demonstrations.  By the time Bigger is arrested, however, the story is dominated by his Communist Party attorney, Don Dean as Max, whose spirited defense of Bigger at the spectacle of his trial becomes, in effect, Wright’s own Marxist assessment of racial relations in America.  While not excusing the crimes committed, Bigger’s destiny is seen as inevitable, along with other black Americans who find themselves in similar circumstances, a byproduct of a racially hostile society that created them and formed them in the nation’s own thoroughly defective image. 

Despite leaving the Communist Party in 1944 and help found the literary Paris Review in Paris in 1949, Wright constantly reevaluated and transformed his Marxist thinking, where the influence of this book remains controversial, stirring up criticisms on every front, not the least of which was a literary war.  Baldwin wrote his own response in a 1949 essay called Everybody’s Protest Novel that was later published in 1955 as a collection of essays Notes of a Native Son initially published in various magazines, where he repudiates Wright’s novel for portraying Bigger Thomas as an angry black man, which he felt lacked psychological complexity and painted a bulls eye on the backs of black Americans in a majority white society, an essay that effectively ended their friendship.  Former Folsom State Prison inmate and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver took both Baldwin and Wright to task in his book Soul on Ice (1968), much discussed during the 60’s, using arch conservative and homophobic views to pit the feminine side of gay writer James Baldwin against the masculine side of Richard Wright, who he felt was a more liberating example for the Panthers and the next generation of young blacks.  Irrespective of one’s views, the work defined 20th century discussions on racial relations in America, where Wright’s intention seemed to be to redefine blacks more accurately for white readers, destroying the myth of smiling and submissive Uncle Tom black men, where Bigger’s internal rage is in full view, even at the more sympathetic liberal whites who he hates with equal relish, especially the way they flaunt their wealth, as they represent everything that remains unattainable to blacks.  Once ensconced with the existentialists in Paris including Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Wright wrote his second novel The Outsider (1953), which critics found too existential and pessimistic, while blacks felt it was a deviation from his black roots, but in effect, he was attempting to transform his original more provincial American ideas onto the world stage, joining forces, one might say, with (another key influence on the Black Panther Party) Frantz Fanon’s idea of blacks actively struggling against societal oppression, where violence and anger are products of opposing racial oppression, spending much of his later years supporting nationalist movements in Africa, dying penniless in Paris at the age of fifty-two.  Along with Wright’s earlier works, his autobiography Black Boy (1937) and Uncle Tom's Children (1938), a collection of short stories, these are his crowning achievements, seminal works in attempting to destroy white myths and provide a complex understanding of a profoundly different view of blacks in today’s modern society.  

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