Sunday, February 28, 2021

Noir Watch: Native Son (1951)

Watched:  02/28/2021
Format:  Noir Alley on TCM
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1950's
Director:  Pierre Chenal

Look, there's easily a book to be written about this movie, not a blog post.  It's a remarkable bit of cinema for a multitude of reasons.  

Based on a novel by celebrated author Richard Wright, and *starring* Richard Wright(!), the movie is maybe the most surprisingly frank depiction of the world a Black American lived within in mid-20th Century America captured on film at the time that I've seen.  Now - let me also say: it is very true I watch studio movies of the era, and have not had access to, and am not aware of, much of the independent Black cinema of the the 1940's and 50's, which I am sure had plenty to say and show.

But, look, this movie was never, ever going to get made in America at a studio - at least until the 1960's.  And so it wasn't.  Shot in Argentina to get around the Hayes Code, the movie does feature a good number of American actors, but not all of them are... the best.  And there's some serious ADR work happening over some of the rest of the talent that must have been local.  But - just imagine in 2021 hearing "we had to leave the country because telling this story was so controversial, the US just couldn't handle it".  I mean - that is not a great thing to have to say in a supposedly free society.

The story follows a young Black man (again, played by the book's author, who was 40ish at the time) from Chicago's South Side, who is up to shenanigans and has a great girlfriend, when he's offered a job through a works program as a chauffer for a wealthy white family.  The family sees itself as liberal, and using their position to help elevate Black people through employment, etc... but it's a patriarchal, condescending form of sympathy - constantly speaking for Bigger (our lead) and asking ridiculous questions.  

Bigger helps the daughter out, who is supposed to be studying, but asks to be taken around town, including to "Negro" clubs, one of which features Bigger's girlfriend as a singer.  They drop the daughter's beau on the way home, but the daughter is blind drunk and needs assistance to her room.  A Black man entering a rich white girl's room is grounds for all sorts of things, and he tries to avoid helping, but she's just that bad off that he kind of has to assist in order to cover for her.  

She's making a lot of noise, which attracts her blind mother, who knows her daughter is there, but to keep the daughter from blurting out that he's in the room, he tries to muffle her with a pillow, when he realizes he's accidentally killed her.  

Yeah, the movie goes from kind of cheery moralism to being super dark in, like, 40 seconds.  

Bigger's mistake leads to a series of complications as the police look into what becomes a "missing persons" case.  

And, yes, the situation is derived from the base injustices of the man's situation, but the challenges and roadblocks compound and compound as the investigation continues, and - he has yet to fall under suspicion.

Again - there's so, so much to say here, but mostly it's just shocking to see a movie of the era speaking so frankly about what it means to be a Black man in white America, depending on what is given out, what the social norms are, and how theoretical allies are problematic and carry a lot of ingrained issues of their own.  

Since watching this movie and attempting to start this post (which is very hard to write, so I'm gonna wrap it up), I've also watched Odds Against Tomorrow, a 1959 heist film produced by and starring Harry Belafonte - and it turns out noir is a hell of an interesting vehicle for exploring the Black experience and handing it to white audiences (read: me) that work with, subvert and use the tropes of the form to communicate a larger story via analogy and character.  

The second half of Native Son makes for good but deeply uncomfortable viewing, and I highly recommend it, despite (or maybe enhanced by) the awkward performances, that make everything a sort of heightened reality.

Recommended - but also recommended you look to someone smarter and better qualified to discuss.  

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