Noir Alley February 20, 2021: Native Son (1951)

This is an exercise to write a review for each edition of Noir Alley, the weekly broadcast of a noir or noir-adjacent film on TCM hosted by Eddie Muller. I’m borrowing an idea from film & TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and limiting each review to roughly 30 minutes of writing, as much because I’m not up for a long writing stretch at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night as for any real discipline.

This is an attempt to put Richard Wright’s renowned novel of the same name into film. The novel’s plot and themes were so incendiary in its era that a film of it couldn’t have been made in the U.S. This production was filmed in Argentina, by a French director, starring Wright himself as the lead character of Bigger Thomas, despite being both too old for the role and not an actor. The production story is remarkable in itself. And it’s an intriguing choice for Noir Alley, especially in the context of Black History Month; very little traditional noir features or focuses on Black stories or characters.

There’s no question this film fits the canon and themes of film noir. Bigger gets into a bad situation and makes decisions that compound the awfulness of his circumstances; it features shadows and neon, double-crosses and police misconduct, and even a blonde femme fatale. But the context of the story, of a Black man who is brought into the world of wealthy white people and immediately falls into danger, is genuinely extraordinary in this genre. If this story featured all white characters, it would have gone differently. But Bigger, as a black man reliant on the favor of his white employers, doesn’t have the privilege of refusing their requests, and the choices he makes are all to some degree driven by the knowledge that if (when) he gets caught, there will be no mercy for him. The setup of the story is fairly standard noir; the structural racism that suffuses it means it feels far more serious, and far more upsetting, than a standard noir plot.

This is not, technically, a good film. It’s stagy, deeply self-conscious, overly earnest, and substitutes awkward speechifying for what ought to be nuanced dialogue. (The courtroom scenes are particularly uncomfortable in this regard.) The plotting doesn’t convey much of the seriousness and complexity of the story. Many of the actors didn’t speak English and had to be dubbed, and the lack of language context affects the performances. Wright himself is aware that he’s wrong for this role and his discomfort with acting is often evident in how he stands and the way he speaks a lot of his lines.

And yet, none of this is as important as the context. Wright understands and portrays Bigger’s fear and desperation in a profound and intuitive way, not just because he created the character but because he’s also a Black man in America. In the early part of the film, after he first gets the job as chauffeur to a wealthy white family and takes his girlfriend for a trip in the expensive care he’s been hired to drive; these scenes carry a sense of giddiness at how the car enables them to move in white spaces they might otherwise not have access to, but also an underlying anxiety, glances over the shoulder, at the possibility they’ll be called out.

The instrument of Bigger’s downfall is his employer’s party-girl daughter (and her Communist-playacting boyfriend), and the scenes in which they demand he goes with them to the good clubs around town, including the one he hangs out at, are uncomfortable from the start and get increasingly anxiety-making. These wealthy white folks fancy themselves as allies, saying they understand what it’s like for Bigger and urging him to rebel against Jim Crow, in language that can still be heard from these types of white people 70 years later. But they do nothing to actually help with this struggle they supposedly support, and they’re oblivious to the dangers their behavior presents to him. There’s a scene in the nightclub where the party girl demands to be introduced to Bigger’s girlfriend, who refuses, but the party girl just pushes her way into the dressing room and starts fawning all over her, touching her and offering her things. This behavior is so predatory it’s painful to watch, and it’s depressing that this kind of behavior still happens.

From there everything goes rapidly downhill, and the scene that seals Bigger’s fate is both agonizing in how tense and upsetting it is, and infuriating in how pathetic and stupid the decisions are. It’s obvious early on that the blonde party girl will wreck him, and that’s the most depressing thing: It would happen one way or another, because she’s a young, rich white woman, and he’s a Black man.

I think a better film could be made from this material (and I’ve seen some discussion that the 1986 TV movie does that). But I’m not entirely sure one could be made that feels as urgent and harrowing as this one. There’s a scene where police are sweeping the floors of a Black tenement, driving the terrified residents through the hallways for no reason but intimidation; the camera work pans across the exterior windows and zigzags up the floors of the building, showing how brutal this action is. In another scene, a fire hose is turned on Bigger, and it’s impossible to watch this without thinking of footage of protests during the civil rights movement and how this was a tool for controlling and harming Black people. Despite the flaws of this film, it’s immensely powerful as a visual representation of structural racism.

For additional context I recommend film writer Odie Henderson’s article about his reaction to the film when he first saw it in 2013. I can give you my impressions, but I’m a white woman and there are things I can’t fully grasp, regardless of my commitment to anti-racism.

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