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Movie Review: NATIVE SON

This week for “Close-Up with Camenker”,  Zach reviews . . . NATIVE SON! (January 15, 2021)

Click here for the blurb and viewing link of NATIVE SON!

Full Review

““Leave them things to God, son. In his kingdom, all men are equal.”

This line from the 1951 film NATIVE SON, spoken toward one of the most climactic moments by protagonist Bigger Thomas’ mother, struck a deep chord with me while watching this very timely piece. 

Based on the 1940 novel by Richard Wright and available through Kino Lorber in Red River’s Virtual Cinema, NATIVE SON tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a struggling black man whose family has tried to make a life for themselves in Chicago, just as many African-American families who left the South aimed to do. 

Shortly after Bigger is hired as a chauffeur for a rich family, he accidentally kills a white woman, causing enormous panic and the need to hide. What follows is a brutally honest depiction of early 20th century America’s prejudices and stereotypes toward its black brothers and sisters, something that continues to be apropos today. 

Admittedly, I have not read NATIVE SON, though I have read BLACK BOY, another of Wright’s most famous works that is an autobiographical portrayal of his own family’s move from the South to the North. I was drawn to the piece, however, for several reasons, one of which was that Wright himself plays Bigger despite having no acting experience and being almost 20 years too old for the part.

While the age difference is noticeable, Wright’s acting chops aren’t so bad for a guy with no other screen credits to his name. One of the writers of the script as well, Wright is able to portray the words that he put to paper with a stark reality and a certain gravitas that a contemporary of his may not have had. He is quite convincing as the troubled, terrified, and well-intentioned Bigger, delivering some of his strongest scenes toward the final moments of the film, which was made under rather odd circumstances.

As outlined in the film’s introduction, which is presented by renowned film historian and professor Jacqueline Stewart as well as Turner Classic Movies (TCM)’s Eddie Muller, NATIVE SON was made by a French director in Argentina with a largely American cast. What a fascinating combination! As you may be able to guess, 1950s American filmmakers were ambivalent about making NATIVE SON given its use of racial epithets and sensitive content. In fact, it was censored drastically when released in the US, which led to it being severely cut and making it a largely lost film until recent years.

While the low budget and lack of grade A talent are visible at times, one thing that is not lost is how the discrepancies between life for whites and blacks is depicted. Considering the low budget and locations where it was shot, director Pierre Chenal nails the realism surrounding the story. Unlike big budget Hollywood epics of the time, as well as grandiose novel adaptations, there is an edge to this film that is very harrowing and bothersome.

What intrigued me most about the picture was the fact that several historians had attached a “film noir” designation to the title. In fact, Eddie Muller hosts NOIR ALLEY on TCM and provides an expert overview of why filmmakers have studied NATIVE SON as a piece of noir.

As a noir lover myself, I paid close attention to characteristics associated with that genre throughout my viewing of the film. And I must say, historians are right! This film screams noir and that, in my opinion, is a large part of what strengthens the piece.

Characteristics like the private inspector, rich family, city landscape, and use of space stood out to me the most. Additionally, the film’s score, style, and light all added another layer that made the noir classification all the more fitting.

As a whole, parts of it read like a low budget “B” detective movie of the 40s or 50s with some great character actors and suspense to boot. One of the film’s characters, Detective Britten, even reminded me of some of the early noir character actors of the same era. His uncanny resemblance to Charles Durning was also striking!

The beauty behind pieces like NATIVE SON which are lost for many years is that when they resurface, there is often a newfound appreciation from audiences. I can see why this film did not do well in its initial release and was deemed indecent by some, though I think those folks likely missed the whole point of why the story was, and still is, so important.

Now, NATIVE SON is available in a well restored print thanks to film preservationists and historians alike. It resonates in these troubling times, especially when racial inequality still looms so deeply.

It appears that the quote from Bigger’s mother is still apropos, though I would have hoped our society would have learned by now that all are, indeed, equal.

Stay tuned for Volume IV, which will appear on January 29 and will focus on the highly acclaimed new documentary, THE REASON I JUMP, recently released to the Red River Virtual Cinema.”

Click here to learn more about Zach Camenker!

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