Richard Wright Stars as Bigger Thomas in a 1951 Screen Test for Native Son

Stick to what you know goes the conventional wisdom. Author Richard Wright won acclaim documenting the African-American experience in the 30’s and 40’s. Literary standing in the bag, he could have explored any number of avenues through his writing, or chosen to delve deeper into the rich territory from which his career had been mined.

Or, you know, he could’ve starred in a 1951 film adaptation of Native Son, his best selling Book of the Month Club selection.

Which only really counts as sticking with what one knows when one has the acting chops to back it up —something the 40 year old Wright, playing a character 20 years younger than himself, did not. It doesn’t help that the period dialogue sounds stilted to modern ears, and Buenos Aires makes a bizarre geographic substitute for the original’s Chicago location. In the age of the digital connection, his turn in the little seen production assumed train wreck status.

A cursory online search reveals a long line of amateur critics busting on Wright’s ultimately ill-advised celluloid foray. Let us come at things from a slightly adjusted angle. Most of us have seen, if not been, an imaginative child at play, whispering invented lines for favorite dolls and action figures’ spur of the moment scenarios.

Couldn’t we hold that that is what Wright is up to here? He may not be the most convincing handling of a prop gun, but he still bests your average 7-year-old believer. Those willing to overlook an untrained actor’s less-than-Oscar interpretation-caliber might be rewarded with insight…

via The Paris Review

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Ayun Halliday remembers the 80’s adaptation, starring Oprah Winfrey. Follow her @AyunHalliday


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