Native Son (1951) (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Sep 23, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Native Son (1951) (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Pierre Chenal

Release Date(s)

1951 (July 19, 2022)

Studio(s)

Argentina Sono Film (Kino Classics/Kino Lorber)
  • Film/Program Grade: C+
  • Video Grade: B
  • Audio Grade: B
  • Extras Grade: D+

Native Son (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!

Review

Richard Wright’s incendiary 1940 novel Native Son was hardly the kind of material that movie studios were clamoring for during the golden age of Hollywood. The racially-charged story of Chicago native Bigger Thomas and his harrowing journey through the margins of wealthy white society, ultimately leading to his arrest for murder, wasn’t something that would have had any executives from that era knocking at Wright’s door. There actually was some mild interest, but it was only on the condition that the story could be reframed from a white perspective instead. Wright refused to accept any changes that gutted the essential nature of his book, and so it remained unfilmed for the rest of the decade. On the other hand, Broadway had no such qualms about the story, and it ended up being adapted for the stage in a production helmed by Orson Welles and John Houseman in 1941. That at least provided some clues about how the material could be reshaped into a different medium, but it took another ten years for those lessons to be applied to the cinema.

Fate eventually intervened in the form of French director Pierre Chenal, who was able to acquire the rights from Wright when it became apparent that he intended to honor the novel’s intentions. Chenal and Wright even ended up collaborating on the screenplay. Unfortunately, Chenal encountered obstacles of his own, including the fact that both France and Italy refused permits for filming in fear of jeopardizing their political relationship with the United States. Chenal had an ace up his sleeve in the form of Argentina, which was where he had fled during the Nazi occupation of France in WWII. He had already made a few films there during that time, and was familiar with the cinematic infrastructure. The Argentinian government was only too happy to participate, and so the streets of Chicago were relocated to South America. Another problem arose when intended star Canada Lee, who had played Bigger on stage, was unable to travel to Argentina, so Wright himself ended up stepping into the role instead. After having taken that circuitous journey through France and Argentina, one of the most quintessentially American novels finally reached the screen in 1951.

At least parts of it did, anyway. While Argentinian audiences saw Native Son uncut under the title Sangre Negra, a patchwork collection of local American censorship boards took their scissors to it, removing any racial or political content that they felt would make mainstream audiences uncomfortable. (Wright was blacklisted at the time due to his affiliation with the American Communist Party.) It was released independently, of course, since the major studios still wanted nothing to do with it regardless of how it was edited. The cuts didn’t do it any favors, so the reviews were harsh, and the box office receipts were even harsher.

Even in its uncut form, however, Native Son is still a problematic film. Chenal was only able to convince a handful of professional actors to appear in the film, and with the rest of the roles being filled in by amateurs, the performances are uneven at best. Wright himself isn’t particularly convincing, especially since he was far too old to play the part. The production values are still pretty high, however, since there was a vibrant film industry in Argentina at that time, and they even did a credible job of recreating Chicago on stages. Where the film stumbles the most is in its treatment of Bigger Thomas, but that’s a challenge inherent to the original text. He’s as much of a borderline stereotypical symbol as he is a character, and there are some ambiguities in how the story develops around him that tend to muddy the thematic waters. The film never manages to overcome that obstacle, so its final point of view is never as clear as Wright intended. It’s still a landmark in terms of the representation of racial issues in cinema, and a valuable historical document.

Cinematographer Antonio Merayo shot Native Son on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at the Academy Aperture of 1.37:1 for its theatrical release. This is the home video debut of the recent restoration of Native Son, which used a cut 35 mm dupe negative as its primary source, and an uncut 16 mm Argentinian release print to provide the missing footage. Kino Lorber describes it as “the most complete version of Native Son ever shown in the United States.” While the various American versions in 1951 were cut by as much as 30 minutes, fortunately this dupe negative was much more complete than that, so there were only a few moments that needed to be patched in from the Argentinian print. That footage is extremely rough, with copious damage, little detail, and poor contrast. It’s in far too shaky condition to allow any real restoration work to be done to it, so it needs to be accepted as it is. The good news is that the rest of the film looks much better, even from a source that’s a couple of generations removed from the original negative. There’s still some light damage visible at times, but it’s otherwise reasonably clean, with decent contrast, and a solid grayscale. It’s not perfect, but it’s by far the best that Native Son has ever looked on home video.

Audio is offered in English 2.0 LPCM, with optional English SDH subtitles. The audio was derived from the optical tracks on the 35 mm print, and fidelity is limited by the source. The dialogue is sometimes a bit harsh and excessively sibilant, but it’s still clear enough to be understood. There’s some poorly synced ADR at times, though that’s just a reflection of how the film was originally produced.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Native Son comes with an impressive 28-page booklet featuring a detailed history of the production by Edgardo C. Krebs from the Smithsonian Institution, as well as behind-the-scenes photos and other production materials. Kino’s website says that “the film is preceded by a special introduction by film historians Eddie Muller (Film Noir Foundation) and Jacqueline Najima Stewart (co-curator of Kino Lorber’s Pioneers of African-American Film collection), courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.” However, the introduction isn’t actually present on the disc, nor is it listed on the back cover. Instead, there’s just a single extra:

  • Re-release Trailer (HD – 1:26)

While the lack of extras is disappointing, the booklet itself certainly qualifies as one, so that fact is reflected in the grade shown above. It’s still an impressive release from Kino Lorber, which has proven willing to spend the money to produce titles like this regardless of how limited that the potential sales figures may be. Native Son is an important film regardless of its rough edges, so Kino deserves support for putting it on the market like this.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)

 

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