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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Zora Neale Hurston Sing Tra­di­tion­al Amer­i­can Folk Song “Mule on the Mount” (1939)

James Bald­win Bests William F. Buck­ley in 1965 Debate at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty

Ralph Elli­son Reads from His Nov­el-in-Progress, June­teenth, in Rare Video Footage (1966)

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

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