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Native Son – 1951 Chenal
- Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, is canon. It is taught often in schools everywhere when reviewing the best of 20th century literature. The 1951 film of the same name is certainly not canon—it is an odd experiment—totally uneven– but not without some redeeming characteristics
- First off, Wright himself plays Bigger Thomas and that’s a huge miss. He’s not an actor and that is abundantly clear from the first scene. It is peculiar to see a man play a character he created (imagine watching Fitzgerald or Steinbeck play Nick Carraway or Tom Joad)—let alone a man of 43-years trying to play the 20-something character. This is a markedly better film with Sidney Poitier playing Bigger—Poitier was 24 in 1951
- Wright couldn’t get financing in the US—so it was made in Argentina. There’s some dubbing with some of the cast members.
- Starts with omniscient narration that disappears — poor form
- Belgium director Pierre Chenal has a very active camera. There’s a great shot left to right through the house introducing Bigger and his family.
- the recreated Chicago has a very Caligari-like expressionistic look to it—flashing lights, distressed buildings, mangled sideways stairs, a heavy spotlight, garbage on the streets. Sort of looks like alternate 1985 dystopian Hill Valley from Back to the Future II
- awful roller coaster on-the-nose metaphor “sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down- just like life”
- Chenal’s camera pulls back in the church—a nice shot
- Another standout is when the camera (from the outside of the building) trails the progress of the police as they move, like ants, all the way up the project building – one shot
- The sunset oranges sign and set piece is strong– recalls both King Kong and White Heat’s finale—manhunt
- Recommend but not in the top 10 of 1951