The Resurrection of 'Native Son'

The story of Bigger Thomas, an impoverished 20-year old black man who finds himself dropped into a nightmare after he accidently kills a young white

woman, is as much a page-turner as a James M. Cain novel. Wright and playwright Paul Green adapted the novel into a stage play produced by Orson Welles

and John Houseman in 1941 (with Canada Lee as Bigger), but the novel’s violent and propulsive plot seemed to beg for the film noir treatment.

Of course, such a treatment was unthinkable in the Hollywood

system. Wright would have to wait another ten years before he saw the

book adapted into a film by producer Jamie Prades and director Pierre

Chenal. The film, shot mostly in Argentina, would star Wright himself

as Bigger. Banned in many places, chopped up by careless censors, and

dismissed by the critics, the film was greeted as an oddball failure.

In recent years, however, thanks to the efforts of film historian

Fernando Martin PeЦa, scholar Edgardo Krebs, and the Library of

Congress, the film has been brought back from the dead and returned

to its original form. The restored film made its debut at the

New York Film Festival on October 8, 2012, and it will be featured

in the Film Noir Foundation’s 2013 NOIR CITY programs in San

Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC.

The film itself is an undeniably fascinating piece of work. In

adapting the novel, Chenal, Prades and Wright crafted a full-on film

noir. From gorgeous sweeping camera shots to a hauntingly surrealist

dream sequence, Chenal utilizes a style that would not seem out of

place alongside Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai (1948) or Hitchcock’s

Spellbound (1945). And to add to the noir atmosphere, there

are familiar faces like Jean Wallace and Charles Cane.

In the sharpness of its social critique, the film would make a

strong companion piece to Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948). Bigger

Thomas stalks the streets of a Chicago that is broken by poverty and

strewn with trash, a destitute place walled in on all sides by unscalable

walls of institutional racism. If Bigger is a man who makes his

own tragic choices, he is also a man shaped by forces beyond his

comprehension. Like Polonsky’s film or Endfield’s Try and Get Me

(1950), Native Son is the rare kind of film noir that seems to stick all

of American society under its microscope. It’s one of the few movies

that could be categorized as epic noir.

It is worth pointing out that the film is not perfect. Wright is

a limited actor and the occasional cheap back projection mars an

otherwise handsome production. It is also worth pointing out that

the film is a wholly unique exploration of American racism, what

Film Noir Foundation President Eddie Muller regards as “an incredibly

significant ‘missing’ piece of cinema history, an actual African-

American film noir made during the classic era.” It is a potent and

often powerfully jarring counterbalance to the vast majority of films

of the era which either featured grotesque racial caricatures or simply

rendered black Americans invisible by excluding them from the

screen altogether.

One of the key figures in the recovery of Native Son is the Argentine social anthropologist Edgardo Krebs. I had a chance to talk with Mr. Krebs about the film and its restoration. Jake Hinkson: Do you know how Pierre Chenal got involved in the project? In a piece you wrote for Film Comment (“Native Son, Lost and Found”), you say that he was ready to direct the film when “the opportunity arose”—does that mean that he had been actively looking to make an adaptation of Wright’s book? Edgardo Krebs: During his WWII exile in Buenos Aires, Chenal had seen the Spanish version of the Orson Welles theater adaptation of Native Son. As Chenal himself tells the story, four years later, when he was back in Paris, the producer Jaime Prades approached him with the idea of doing a film for an Argentine studio. Chenal and Prades (who was from Uruguay) had worked together in Se abre el abismo (Pampa Films, 1944), one of four films Chenal directed in Argentina between 1941 and 1945. The terms of Prades’ proposal were quite broad. The US had embargoed the exports of stock film to Argentina during the war, with the pretext that the government in Buenos Aires would favor the production of propaganda films sympathetic to the Axis powers. In fact, there was a commercial reason behind the embargo: the popularity of Argentine films in Latin America. They were competing favorably with Hollywood for that market. The embargo was devastating. Several studios had to close down, and the production of Argentine films per year was decimated to one third. It was the end of the Golden Age of the Argentine film industry… and the beginning of the Golden Age of Mexican films, since Americans put a lot of money to develop their studios. Prades told Chenal that Argentina Sono Film was desperate to produce a film, and that he could choose the topic. And Chenal saw this as an opportunity to realize “an old dream” of his: making Native Son into a movie. Wright’s literary agent, Madame Bradley, was very skeptical about the chances that an American studio would take Native Son to the screen. So that was the initial spark. Wright,

who by then was also living in Paris, agreed to do it. It was also an old dream of his to make this film.

JH: Do you know how Jean Wallace got involved?This film comes at a troubled time in her life—between her suicide attempt in late 1949 and her divorce from Franchot Tone in late 1950—so I’m interested to know if you can tell us anything about her involvement in the picture.

EK: According to Michel Fabre, author of several books on Richard Wright, the role was offered first to other Hollywood actresses (he gives no names) who “refused to appear on the screen in the arms of a black man.” As you mention, Jean Wallace was facing many problems in her private life and her acting career was at an impasse. These circumstances may have decided her to take the risk. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who was assistant director to Chenal during the filming of Native Son, told me that she was very professional and liked by the crew. And that she got along well with Richard Wright. Wallace was only in her mid-\twenties but had gone through a lot already. The story of how the cast was assembled is one of several stories within the story that turn the making of Native Son (or Sangre Negra, as it was titled in Spanish) into such a rich archive on the history of the 1950s, across a number of sensitive subjects.

JH: One source of contention in the reception of the film has always been Wright’s casting as Bigger. Do you have a sense of why a) Chenal wanted to cast him, and b) why Wright accepted?

EK: Wright wrote an essay on the lack of opportunities for blacks in the movies, on how poorly they were represented as human beings, with complex lives, a worldview, opinions, problems, joys. When Chenal was looking for black actors in Chicago for the cast of Native Son, Wright told him that he would not find them. Perhaps in Hollywood? “Aside from singing, dancing and playing music” he added, “blacks have the doors closed to any other artistic

activity.” Wright had been trying in vain

for over a decade to interest Hollywood studios in producing scripts he had written on topics like the Underground Railroad, or a travelling group of singers during Reconstruction, all of them former slaves. These themes allowed Wright to display his cinematic imagination on meaningful stories that were central to black history. But nothing materialized. So he was very hands-on when the chance of making Native Son came up. The first choice of both Chenal and Wright was to cast Canada Lee in the role of Bigger Thomas, but he refused the offer. Chenal then began to think that Wright himself could act the part. It was during the course of discussions with him about the logistics of the film that Chenal noticed that “something strange” was taking place: while explaining things, “Dick was turning into Bigger Thomas, the hero spoke through the mouth of its creator.”

There were other details, having to do with Wright’s personality and body language: the high-pitched voice, the attitude, certain gestures. So Chenal posed the question: would you consider playing Bigger Thomas? Wright laughed and responded “But man, I am no actor!” Chenal insisted. “You do not need to pretend to be one,” he said, “just live Bigger’s nightmare.”

Several critics who never saw the complete film, only the brutally censored one, have come down on Wright because of his age: he was too old to play Bigger Thomas to begin with. They also wondered ruefully what could have happened if Canada Lee had played the part. But Canada Lee was a year older than Wright! If you see Lee in qCry, the Beloved Country [1951], which was filmed roughly at the

same time as Native Son, one has to wonder how would have Chenal managed to make him into a convincing Bigger. I think that critics remembered Lee from the Orson Welles theater adaptation, where he turned out an extraordinary performance. But ten years had passed. Wright accepted the role because Chenal gave him the confidence that he could do it. And Chenal was not making things up. He saw something in Wright that he could work with.

JH: How influenced was the film by the Welles/Houseman production?

EK: Very influenced. If you compare certain pictures of the play with

photographs of the movie the resemblances are striking. Chenal and

Wright worked directly on the text of the Welles/Houseman production.

Even though Paul Green was involved in delivering a first draft,

neither Houseman nor Wright himself were happy with the results.

Green had taken out, or tinkered with, several passages at the heart of

the novel. These were important to Wright, who was very concerned

that the authenticity and power of the story would not be lost. So he

and Houseman reworked Green’s draft in secret. The same happened

with Chenal and Wright. They took the play as a starting point and

worked together to turn it into the script for the film.

JH: Do you know anything about the magnificent shot of Bigger and

Bessie climbing the stairs in the abandoned building?

Is that a crane shot on a gigantic set? Unless I miscounted, they climb four full floors!

EK: The shot you mention, it was one of the many feats of Gori Munoz, who designed the sets for the film, and got awards for doing so. Chenal and Wright, as I mention in my answers, were adamant about authenticity. Chenal took many pictures in the South Side of Chicago (I wish that they may exist somewhere, and that they will surface one day) and also recorded the sounds of the L-train—all of this with the aim of reconstructing the atmosphere of Bigger Thomas’s neighborhood as faithfully as possible in Argentina Sono Film’s studios. The scene you mention was done by traveling: the camera raised together with Bigger and Bessie, following the characters as they climbed the stairs. When criticisms of the mutilated version blamed a wobbly production for the quality of the film, an

irritated Chenal let it be known that he had everything he needed to do Native Son, all the technical means and resources, at a level comparable to what a studio in France or Hollywood could offer at that time. So, the scene you liked was shot in a studio, and Gori Munoz (responding to Chenal’s needs) was responsible for engineering it.

JH: Even in its mutilated form, was there an audience for the film?

Do you think the film would have been more financially successful

had it been shown uncut?

EK: There was certainly an audience for the uncut version in Argentina.

It opened at the biggest theater in Buenos Aires, and tickets

sold out for the first two weeks. The critical reviews were also very

good. However, Chenal had always thought that the film, although

produced in Buenos Aires, was destined to an international market.

And certainly that’s how Argentina Sono Film executives and

Richard Wright himself understood the project. It was the first film

done entirely in English in Argentina. Success in the local market was

encouraging and a vindication, but all the great expectations were

placed on the American and European markets. Argentina Sono Film

planned a fancy premiere on board a Pan Am flight. But what Chenal and all the others underestimated was how dead serious some American politicians were in their resolve to stop a film that was critical of segregation. To make things worse, Wright had been linked with the Communist party, and these were the McCarthy

years. Argentina Sono Film did not anticipate either the cold reception that Europeans would give to Native Son. The Marshall Plan was in full application, and that France or Italy or Germany would put at risk the economic aid they needed by making a fuss about this

polemical film may have been naХve. Argentina Sono Film had tried

to make a deal with Paramount for the international distribution of

Native Son, but failed. They finally signed a contract with Walter

Gould’s agency, Classic Pictures. The studio kept the rights for three

countries only: Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. I assume that only

in those three countries the film was seen uncut.

In the US, Walter Gould had recurrent problems with the Boards

of Censors in several states. The outcome was a badly cut version of

Native Son. Thirty-two minutes were chopped off. The equivalent,

as Chenal graphically described it to Wright in a letter, of 800 meters

of celluloid. That mutilated version was dragged through several

theaters in the US, and also shown in Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Sweden.

… But it was a maimed artifact, a sort of Elephant Man spectacle.

Chenal was livid. He even considered withdrawing his name

from the credits. Wright understood that the film had been killed,

and turned the page.

I think we have to assume that the film would not have been

successful in the 1950s, because it could not. Chenal argued, in a

letter to Wright, that the European public could not be inferior to

the Argentine public. If Peron had not censored the film, why would

Europeans do it? It finally sunk in for him that the film would fail in

“Democracy No. 1” and he resigned himself to the cuts and the bad

reviews there. But as long as the copy released in Europe was identical

to the one shown in Buenos Aires he remained confident about

the success of the film. Gould did not follow that path. He even

wrote an incredible letter to Wright, arguing that the mutilated copy

was better than the original, and that he should pay no attention to

Chenal’s combative defense of the “Buenos Aires” version.

What interests me is to see how film historians, cultural critics

and intelligent viewers will react now to the complete film; how will

they judge and reappraise it. And that means also looking at its history,

at how it was reviewed in the 1950s in Europe, and in places

like Brazil. The subject deserves a documentary that teases out all

these strands and explores the context in which the film was shot.

I am working on that with Ted Thomas, director of Walt and El

Grupo (2008).

JH: I read something by Michel Fabre that said Wright had a special

love for film noir. Do you have any sense that Wright or Chenal conceived

of the film as a film noir—or not so much as a “film noir” per

se, because the term wasn’t in general use at the time, but as a film in

the style that we would come to define as film noir? Were there films

they patterned their production after?

EK: Wright was a film addict, a fan, particularly of film noir. Some

scenes of Native Son take place in a movie theater, and they were

essentially kept in the film version. When Gabriel Garcia Marquez

learned, in 1949, that a film adaptation of the novel was being produced

in Buenos Aires, he wrote an article for a Colombian newspaper

wondering whether Chenal would be faithful to the cinematographic

feel of the book. And as I mentioned before, in the forties

Wright kept trying to negotiate with Columbia Pictures the purchase

of film scenarios he had written. He also contacted John Grierson.

He wanted to work for him at the National Film Board.

As for Chenal, he began doing short documentaries. Then he

wrote a book on the influence of Surrealism and Dadaism on film.

But when he moved into directing fiction one of his first projects was

a version of Crime and Punishment (1935). Soon after that he made

the first film adaptation of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings

Twice (1939). Chenal had an affinity for, and was a pioneer of, film

noir. He liked the essential formula of a transgression, the commission

of a sin and the events triggered by it. He then observed the

characters trapped in those circumstances, how they reacted. There

are a number of similarities between Postman and Native Son. In

both films the men playing the bad guy end up in jail and accepting

their fate with a sort of redemptive calmness. Native Son, the novel,

is what it is, a classic of American literature.

I subscribe to what the philosopher Richard Rorty said about the

value of ethnography and fiction, giving the work of Richard Wright

as one of the examples. “Coming to see other human beings as ‘one

of us’ rather than ‘them’ is a matter of detailed description of what

unfamiliar people are like, and of redescription of what we ourselves

are like.” Theory does not accomplish this. Good ethnographies and

good novels do.

I think that Native Son, the film, is an incredible repository of that

process. It shows both the merits of the novel, of a good description

of a social situation, and also the reaction to the description, the impulse

to suppress it so that the ‘unfamiliar’ remains unfamiliar, and

outside our moral frame of reference. The film works for me as film,

but more interestingly—because of how it was made and how it was

subsequently massacred by censorship—as a sort of museum installation

of all the issues related to race, prejudice and segregation that

Richard Wright boldly addressed in the novel.

JH: Do you know how long production lasted? I’ve read that Wright

spent most of ’48-’49 working on the script, and spent from October

’49-June ’50 shooting it. To the best of your knowledge, is that correct?

If so, do you know why it would have taken so long?

EK: Yes, that sounds correct to me. It took that long because it was

not a straightforward project from the very beginning. Chenal had

problems finding a cast. He had problems shooting in Chicago—

which he did without permits, illegally. Then, according to Sanchez

de Lozada, the source of the money for making the film (I have not

been able to search yet for corroborating documents), came from

retentions the Peron government established for the box office tallies

of Hollywood films shown in Argentina. This was a sort of retaliation

for the film stock embargo during the war. Prades had somehow

gotten access to one of those pools of money.

This would explain to me the many complications some authors

describe Richard Wright had in drawing contracts and subcontracts

for the film. They had to sidestep government controls. Finally, even

though Chenal had seen possibilities in Wright as an actor, in the

actual process of shooting Chenal was quite demanding and some

scenes required several takes. One of the reasons that Sanchez de

Lozada [Editor’s Note: Sanchez de Lozada would go on to become

the 74th and 77th President of Bolivia] was quickly promoted to

assistant director (having started the shoot as the person in charge

of continuity) was his good English. Chenal needed him in order to

communicate fluidly with Wright.

JH: Perhaps you could also confirm or disconfirm something for me:

I’ve read that Wright had problems with producer Jamie Prades and

director Chenal during filming (particularly because Chenal wanted

to make larger departures from the novel).

EK: I think that the problems with Prades stemmed from the peculiar

origin of the funds. Prades has gotten quite a bad rap from

Wright’s biographers. They may be right; I have no privileged insight

about his personality and methods. But it is clear to me that he was a

pro. He went on to strike a very successful partnership with Samuel

Bronston, with whom he produced films like King Of Kings (1961),

El Cid (1961), 55 Days In Peking (1963). … The relationship between

Chenal and Wright was cordial. They understood each other.

They both wanted to make the best film possible. And respect the

book. Chenal showed the complete film—except for the credits—to

Wright, as soon as it was available, and before he left Argentina.

Wright was very happy with it, and pleasantly surprised with how he

had done as an actor.

JH: Can you tell me how Fernando Martin PeЦa uncovered the long

lost 16mm print?

EK: It is a picaresque story, and Fernando should tell it himself because

I do not have all the details lined up as he does. We need to

start by saying that when Laboratorios Alex burnt down in 1969,

many of the negatives of Argentina Sono Film disappeared—those

of Native Son included. Fernando learned in the early ’90s that an

eccentric film collector miraculously had a 16 mm copy, and that he

was showing it at a cine club in Buenos Aires. In 1999 the collector

was in dire straits and offered to sell the copy to Fernando. He

bought it, and quickly realized that he had a complete version of

Native Son, the same one that opened in Buenos Aires in 1951, and

the one that Chenal repeatedly put forward as the only valid version

of the film.

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