Saturday, October 6, 2012
Native Son (1951) New York Film Festival 2012
Restored first film version of the classic American novel is more of interest for it's place in history rather than because it's a good film.
Richard Wright's story tells the tale of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in poverty. He gets a job with a rich family as a driver. However things take a tragic turn when Bigger accidentally kills his bosses daughter when trying to cover up that he has brought her to her room after her drunken night with her boyfriend.
I had always heard that this version of the story was nigh impossible to see. The film came to my attention when the 1986 version was released to theaters and reviews talked about how the film was the second cinematic adaption of the story. Efforts to run down a copy of the film in the VHS days proved fruitless and was always met with a "But why would you want to see it, it's terrible" from any collector of film fan I talked to about it. Everyone seemed to have seen it but no one seemed to think much of it.
When the film was announced for this years New York Film Festival I was excited since here was the a chance to see a film I had heard about but had never seen. It was also a chance to mark off one of the films I had been trying to find from my list.
Walking into the the press screening, I had a sense of getting to see something special. The festival this year was not running many of the Masterworks for the press so the chance to see one made it vital to attended.
Sadly I walked out half way into the film, I just couldn't sit there any more.
While I was not roaring with laughter, as the gentleman in front of me was, I was shaking my head. This isn't a drama, it's a polemic about race relations. People never behave like this except in polemics. Watching the film I was having a hard time matching up the source novel with the film on the screen.
Its easy to understand why the film was heavily censored when the film was released in 1951 since the film is full of rage at the inequality of people of differing colors. Its a film aching to put right a serious social wrong and it screams it's points at you in a most strident way (The film begins with look at Chicago and it lays everything out for you in bite size nuggets).
The script, adapted from the novel by Wright, shows signs of the earlier stage adaption that he had also written. The dialog and the situation seem arch and highly theatrical. Every line is dripping with meaning. It has the feeling of something that might have played on Broadway rather than the feel of something that alive on the big screen. It also shows signs of the changes that had to be made to get the film done with the sex all but removed and the Communist angle down played.
The cast is wildly uneven with some people being better than other. Wright, playing his own lead character is very up and down. While I wouldn't say that he's horrible, I will say it's clear that he isn't much of an actor. It doesn't help that Wright the author has given Wright the actor precious little to work with. Bigger in this film isn't so much a character as a mouth piece. He is there to represent an idea. He is a character who never comes together into a fully formed whole. Additionally Wright, at the time the film was made, was into his 40's making him well over twice the character's age in the novel.
As I said before the gentleman in front of me was chuckling his way through the film. while I wasn't laughing I completely understood his take since so much of this is ripe for all the wrong reasons.
The film is an important one historically since it's an attempt to film a controversial novel and get it before a wider audience. It's a film that is daring to be about something more than mere entertainment... but it's nothing I would ever want to see again, or even see to the end.
As much as I hate to say this you can skip this one.
If you don't feel the need the film will screen on October 9 at the NYFF.