I wrote the dialog. The producers and director gave me carte blanche in whatever concerned my role as actor. — Richard Wright, 1950
Authors have taken bit parts in the film adaptations of their novels and plays—John Irving as a wrestling referee in The World According to Garp, Stephen King in Pet Sematary, Gore Vidal in The Best Man come to mind—and F. Scott Fitzgerald was offered an acting contract during his first trip to Hollywood in the 1920s.
But only Richard Wright (in the first cinematic adaptation of his 1940 novel NATIVE SON*) and Mickey Spillane (in The Girl Hunters, 1963) got the chance to take leading roles and embody their own well-known protagonists. Spillane’s turn was perhaps the more plausible of the two—the problematic Mike Hammer and his pulp fiction creator were approximately the same age. But the 1951 film noir version of NATIVE SON—directed by Pierre Chenal in an Argentine studio—offers a richer experience. As J. Hoberman observed after a MoMA screening in 2016, the performance of this author—twice the age of the character he’s playing, quoting his own lines—takes on an avant-garde, Brechtian quality.
Bigger Thomas is a petty hood in his twenties, residing in a tenement in Chicago’s South Side “Black Belt” and hustling a living in the commercial district under the 63rd Street El (recreated in the Buenos Aires studio). A few blocks away but a world apart sit the University of Chicago and the adjacent mansions of Kenwood-Hyde Park. Bigger lands a job in one of these houses as the family chauffeur for the Daltons—rich, white liberals—and on his first night of work, the college-age daughter invites Bigger to join her and her boyfriend for an evening at a local jazz club. Desperate to prove their progressive bonafides—the boyfriend is a political activist—the couple pile in the front seat with Bigger and insist he join them at their table in the club. Toasting friendship, racial equality, and—in the words of the activist—”the world we’re going to win,” the evening spirals downward as Bigger’s employer goes overboard with alcohol consumption and cringe-making attempts at solidarity. Following a performance by the club’s singer (who happens to be Bigger’s girlfriend Bessie), Mary Dalton says, “All colored people are so gifted. Don’t you think so, Bigger?” A reaction of dread is the only thought Bigger can summon, and his fears are confirmed once he’s obliged to bring an intoxicated Mary back home and up to her room.
Presented by Kino Lorber Repertory with the Library of Congress, Fernando Martin Peña, and Argentina Sono Film, the restored, uncut, definitive version of NATIVE SON is now available for viewing on Kino Marquee. See links below for details.
An introduction to NATIVE SON is provided by University of Chicago film professor Jacqueline Najuma Stewart (co-curator of Kino Lorber‘s Pioneers of African American Cinema) and film historian Eddie Muller (of the Film Noir Foundation), courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
*The two subsequent film version’s of Wright’s novel were made in 1986 (directed by Jerrold Freedman) and 2019 (directed by Rashid Johnson).
Pierre Chenal, Native Son (1951), from top: Richard Wright and Willa Pearl Curtis; Wright (foreground left); Gloria Madison and Wright; Jean Wallace and Wright (2); U.S. poster; Wright and Madison; Don Dean (right) and Wright; Wright. Images courtesy and © Kino Lorber.