“Fear has haunted Thomas to the very end.”
Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son is one of the standards of African-American literature. It has found its way to the screen a few times. The first such film, directed by Belgian director Pierre Chenal, was made in Argentina in 1951. The international flair is worth noting, because it is a film that probably couldn’t have been made at that time in the US (in part because Wright was blacklisted). When the film was released in the US it faced severe censorship. Many thought the unexpurgated film was lost for years, but in the 1990s a complete copy of the film was found in Argentina and was given to the Library of Congress for restoration. That restored version (actually restored from two copies, one 35 mm the other 16 mm) is now being released anew.
It is the story of Bigger Thomas (played here by Richard Wright himself), a young black man in Chicago’s South Side, (described in the opening voice over as “a prison without bars”). We’re told he longs to be an adventurer and explorer, but “when you’re black it’s better to keep your dreams locked in your heart.”
Bigger is on the edge of criminality, but is given a job as chauffeur for the rich white Daulton family. The parents are somewhat liberal in terms of race, Mr. Daulton tells Bigger that has wife “has a deep interest in colored people”. Daughter Mary Daulton is very progressive. When Bigger drives her to an evening out (supposedly to the library), she has him pick up her boyfriend Jan (a labor organizer) and they all go to a South Side club where Bigger’s girlfriend Bessie happens to be singing.
Mary and Jan believe in complete equality. Jan has various pamphlets on unions and racial equality. Jan tells Bigger, “One of these days we’re going to smash this Jim Crow system, and when we smash it, it’s going to stay smashed.” They expect Bigger to be their friend rather than just a chauffeur. It is very uncomfortable for Bigger to be in such a situation.
After a long night of drinking, Mary needs help getting to her room. While Bigger is trying to get her into bed, events lead to him accidentally killing her. He knows that a black man killing a white woman will never be understood, so he tries to cover it up. As the cover up escalates, and then unravels, Bigger and Bessie are on the run from police. Bigger is eventually captured and put on trial.
The film is very much in the film noir tradition. Bigger is not a moral paragon or innocent man. He has had past issues with the law. At the beginning of the story he’s planning a crime that doesn’t happen. Yet he gets caught up in circumstances mostly of his own making. However, all of this is rooted in the fear ingrained in Bigger because he is black. He knows that justice can sometimes be very swift for black men. His father was lynched twelve years earlier. What might be for some people a terrible accident, Bigger knows could be deadly for him. His every action is based on growing fear of how the world will see this and react to it.
It’s important to keep in mind that this is a mid-twentieth century view of racism. (That is one of the causes of the censorship it faced.) While there are some very overt racist scenes, such as a crowd outside the courthouse complaining over the cost of a trial when they could just lynch him, often there are more nuanced views of racism. For example, when Bigger is driving Mary and Jan, Mary wants Bigger to sing something, suggesting “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. For all her supposed liberalism, she has a pre-conceived idea of a black person that is very much a stereotype.
There are some interesting religious angles to the story as well. Bigger’s mother is very religious. Right after Bigger goes to work for the Daultons, he is brooding at home, and he and his mother have a brief dialog:
Mother: What’s you thinking about?
Bigger: About how we live and how they live.
Mother: Leave them things to God, son. In his Kingdom all men are equal.
Bigger: Yeah, I know, but we don’t live there.
After Bigger’s arrest, his mother takes his siblings to church and we hear her prayer seeking mercy. But Bigger never turns to God, in part because he believes he is deserving of what has befallen him.
Here is a nearly seventy year old film based on an eighty year old novel that continues to seem contemporary. That serves as a reminder of just how little progress our society has made in racial relations. We might want to join in Bigger’s mother’s prayer for mercy—for young men who must live such lives and for ourselves as we see our failure to bring about change.
Native Son is available on Virtual Cinema through Kino Marquee and local arthouses and includes in introduction by film historians Eddie Muller (Film Noir Foundation) and Najima Stewart (co-curator of Kino Lorber’s Pioneers of African American Cinema).
Photos courtesy of Kino Lorber