Early movie poster of Richard Wright’s “Native Son”
I could see the larger-than-life faces of the man and woman from a distance. As I got closer to the framed poster, I saw that their expressions appeared benign, although her pale white face was in the outline of smoke coming from a revolver in his hand.
The man was black and his face looked familiar. Beneath their images were these words:
“Richard Wright en Sangre Negra (Native Son).”
It was a poster of an adaptation of a movie based on African American author Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son” and the man in the poster was the author himself. I’ve read the book and seen the 1986 film featuring Oprah Winfrey based on Wright’s much-heralded novel, but this was new to me.
The 1940 novel itself is wrenching and disturbing in its story of a young black man driven by the mores of his time to accidentally kill a young white woman. He was afraid of being found in her room after chauffeuring her from a labor rally where she’d gotten drunk. In trying to help her, Bigger Thomas was forced to kill her, and then dismembered and burned her body. Bigger lived during a time when a black man could be killed for whistling at a white woman (as in Emmett Till) and was schooled like other black boys from an early age about the taboo of white women.
This oversized poster behind glass was hung on a wall among smaller and seemingly insignificant (as least for me) paintings and prints at the auction house. It was an original – its appearance both bold and dramatic, its printed words matching the size and intensity of the images, and its name dripping red blood.
It’s one of the first posters from the movie, the buyer said to me after nabbing it in tit-for-tat bidding against another auction-goer who wanted it as desperately as him. I was hoping to dip my toe into the bidding, but it took off from the beginning and raced fast ahead. This buyer was determined to get it, no matter the price.
Wright had tried for a decade to get Bigger’s story to the big screen, but no one seemed to be interested or they wanted to change the focus of his novel (making the character into a white man, thereby minimizing the issue of race and its complications for Bigger). Along with race, the book contained the politics of labor unions and hints of Communism, which was too much in the era of McCarthyism.
“Sangre Negra” was the first film version of Wright’s book.
The novel was snubbed by Hollywood studios (one book noted that it was the same in Europe), so the Argentine film company Sono Film made the movie in Buenos Aires in 1951 with French director Pierre Chenal and Wright as screenwriter. Some scenes were shot in Chicago where as expected Wright was refused a hotel room.
In exile in France and in his 40s by then, Wright played the 20-year-old Bigger and Jean Wallace, the white woman. Gloria Madison, a University of Chicago student, portrayed Bigger’s girlfriend who goes on the run with him when he is found out. Dancer Katherine Dunham and her company were listed as a vocal quintette.
The sets in Buenos Aires took on the atmosphere of Chicago, with shops and billboards showing what you’d see in that city, according to an article on filmcomment.com. There was a photo of Jackie Robinson on a ladies dressing room wall.
The movie was shown in Central America and Europe as “Sangre Negra (Black Blood),” where it was well-received. It was also shown in some theaters in the United States where it was sanitized through censoring (“massacred,” as the director noted) and unmercfully cut by 30 minutes from 104 minutes. It got bad reviews from some major newspapers because as some articles noted, the acting was amateurish (this was Wright’s first time out as an actor, but I found some reviews that were complimentary) and too much of its message was censored. It was banned in some U.S. cities and not released in France.
Soon after “Native Son” was published, though, it was adapted for the stage in New York, directed by Orson Wells and starring Canada Lee (who was originally tapped to play Bigger in Buenos Aires). It was also adapted for the stage in Buenos Aires in 1944.
VHS tapes of the movie are available on amazon.com, but I’m not sure which version it is – cut or uncut. Here’s a photo of Wright standing in front of a copy of the poster similar to the one at auction.