Richard Wright as Bigger Thomas in “Native Son.”
Black writer Richard Wright chronicled racial and class prejudice in his intense, best-selling novel “Native Son” in 1940. The work remains a lightning rod, still timely and confrontational as well as profane, graphic and violent to many who seek to ban it from libraries. “Native Son’s” powerful theme boldly covers America’s race divide, making it fertile material for stage and screen. Adapting it for both mediums challenged many, offended by the overt condemnation of racism or what they considered obscenity, but these visceral productions provided potent food for thought to audiences.
Born 1906 on a plantation near Natchez, Miss., Wright experienced hardship similar to his Bigger Thomas character, living with his illiterate father, teacher-trained mother, and strict grandmother, a former slave. After his father abandoned the family, Wright’s mother struggled with poverty. When his mother was stricken by paralysis, he was raised by an uncaring uncle and then shipped around between family members. Wright felt ignored and rebuffed by whites, while blacks warned him to conform and not rock the boat, leading him to accept whatever crumbs he was offered. Once he began reading at the age of 15, a rebel was born.
A drawing of the stage version of “Native Son” from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Moving to Chicago at the age of 17, Wright worked odd jobs, hoboed around the country, and later worked nights as a post office clerk, allowing him the opportunity to read and write during the day. At the same time he attended Communist meetings, looking for belonging and escape from oppression. Winning the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939 allowed Wright to finish “Native Son” after gaining acclaim for such works as “Uncle Tom’s Children,” also covering racial and class prejudice. The Book of the Month Club chose to publish his novel, but forced Wright to edit “Native Son” before publication, toning down certain situations.
“Native Son” gained instant acclaim upon release, becoming a best seller. The novel confronts America’s racial divide, demonstrating the hardships Blacks suffered every day regarding living, working, and social conditions, doomed to a second-class existence with the system stacked against them. Some called the work the “Negro ‘Grapes of Wrath.’” The March 8, 1940, Dayton Forum wrote, “America is full of potential Bigger Thomases, hounded by white persecution, victims of circumstances they cannot control.”
Wright based his work on a variety of situations from around Chicago. Some events arose from his days serving as a counselor at a boy’s club on the South Side of the city for the Works Progress Administration, while the court scene and plea were modeled after Clarence Darrow’s defense for the Leopold-Loeb case. The Chicago Tribune also attributed situations to Robert Nixon’s “brick bat” murders in 1938 and how he committed his crimes.
Canada Lee in the stage version of “Native Son,” performed in Chicago, from a playbill listed on EBay.
In March 1941, the Los Angeles Times reported that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer considered buying the film rights to the work, which they intended to make with an all white cast, focusing on slum conditions rather than racial issues. Wright refused to sell.
Working with former Pulitzer Prize winner and University of North Carolina professor Paul Green that July, Wright adapted his novel for the stage. Rehearsals began in February 1941 for the Mercury Theatre production at New York’s St. James Theatre. Orson Welles directed and produced in conjunction with John Houseman, with financing coming from talent agent Bern Bernard and with MCA agent Jerry Lavin and William Herz both acting on behalf of other parties. Actor Lionel Stander received 8% interest in connecting Welles and Houseman with the financiers, and Welles, Houseman, and Herman Mankiewicz earned a small interest as owners of United Productions, Inc, which held dramatic rights to the play. Mercury stage regular Everett Sloane and film movie company members Ray Collins and Paul Stewart joined the cast along with young actor Joseph Pevney, later to achieve fame as a film noir director.
“Native Son” opened on Broadway March 24, 1941, two months before the premiere of Welles’ film debut in “Citizen Kane.” Multi-talented Black actor Canada Lee starred as Bigger, previously working with Welles in the director’s all-Black stage production of “Macbeth.” He gained wide praise as well as the Drama Critics Award for Best Actor for his portrayal. Reviews called his performance sensitive, stark, and thoughtful.
Canada Lee, Patricia Palmer and John Berry in the stage version of “Native Son,” from a playbill listed on EBay.
Most reviews praised the work, staged by Welles without intermission as a series of blackouts on a revolving stage. As such, the director forbade program distribution to the end of the show to prevent audience members from lighting matches to read it and thus revealing the staging. The Daily News’ Burns Mantle described the show as “the best, and likewise the most, sensational, of this year’s dramas.” Sidney B. Whipple of the World Telegram called it “stark melodrama, touched by the hand of genius…it is a triumph for Mr. Welles.”
Several critics praised aspects of the show while finding it not quite as powerful as the novel. John Mason Brown in the New York Post stated, “….it is impossible not to realize that “Native Son” at its best on the stage is as nothing compared to ‘Native Son’ at its crudest in book form.”
Hearst paper reviewers panned the show. The Journal American’s John Anderson called it “propaganda that seems nearer Moscow than Harlem.” Robert Coleman of the Daily Mirror stated, “Bigger’s defense, conducted by a Communist mouthpiece, sounds remarkably like a page from the ‘Daily Worker’ or the ‘New Masses.’”
“Native Son” played 14 weeks at the St. James Theatre, heavily in the red, with production costs of $46,000 and box office receipts totaling $10,000. Many thought book readers passed up the show because of toned-down situations, while many women felt offended by the story. Others described playgoers’ objecting to “radical” issues in the play, while few Blacks attended due to price and the uneasy feeling of watching a Broadway show greatly outnumbered by a white audience. Producers took the show on the road, with Lee still starring as Bigger.
Jean Wallace as Mary Dalton in “Native Son.”
Lee Shubert revived the show at the Majestic Theatre in 1942 under the direction of Welles. While Lee still starred as Bigger, a virtually new cast took part, with John Ireland playing a reporter. This time, many took issue with the play, perhaps due to Wright’s participation in a Writers’ Congress praising the Soviet Union, as well as the play’s content. Conservative groups protested indecency at several Broadway shows at the same time, forcing the closing of the Shuberts’ “Wine, Women and Song.”
As a precaution, Lee Shubert closed “Native Son” due to groups and individuals such as Archbishop Spellman finding it objectionable, and the fact it was slowly bleeding money. The NAACP protested to Mayor LaGuardia, and groups such as Actors Equity, Dramatists Guild, the League of New York Theatres, National Council on Freedom from Censorship, and the American Civil Liberties Union protested to Shubert. Russel Crouse, Howard Lindsay, Elmer Rice, and Herman Shawlin offered to cover the losses of “Native Son” in order to keep it open and prevent censors from winning the day. While the production did reopen, it still continued in the red.
Panama (George D. Green) and Bigger Thomas (Richard Wright) plan a holdup but abandon the plan in “Native Son.”
Under pressure for his former Communist party membership, Wright moved to Paris in 1947. By 1949, the novelist began planning a film adaptation of his work, discovering that French producers found it too hot to handle. Canada Lee agreed to star, eager to bring Bigger Thomas to film audiences. Filming schedules were on and then off again as Wright struggled to locate financing and support. By the time he secured funding and an agreement with the Argentinian company Sono Film and producer Jaime Prades, Lee had signed for other work. To save money and time, Wright stepped in to play his lead character. Jean Wallace, was hired to play the lead female role
Filming on “Native Son” began in October 1949 in Chicago under the direction of Pierre Chenal shooting for six weeks at such locations as the Loop, Michigan Avenue, the El, and the back alleys, slums, and state prison in the area. Producer Pierre Chenal’s wife, Florence Marly, described the gritty sites to the Los Angeles Times on October 11 by saying, “they have remarkable character and are much like etchings.”
Chicago-area college coed Gloria Madison, who possessed some theatrical experience, was hired to play Anne, Bigger’s girlfriend. Monogram Studios signed Los Angeles civic worker, Mrs. Willa Pearl Curtis, to a 60 day contract in early 1950 to play Bigger’s mother. She had previously played small roles in “Variety Girl,” “The Pirate, and “The Unconquered,” but this was her first time traveling overseas.
Gloria Madison as Bessie Mears, Bigger Thomas’ girlfriend, in “Native Son.”
The company completed six months of interior filming in Buenos Aires, home to Sono Films, wrapping their film at a cost of around $300,000. Once completed, however, filmmakers experienced difficulty in landing a distribution contract due to the film’s subject matter and Wright’s former communist background. Not until summer 1951 would “Native Son” finally premiere in theatres and begin its road show screenings.
“Native Son” received mostly tepid film reviews because of poor production values and bland acting. The Los Angeles Black paper the California Eagle called it an “embarrassing movie,” mostly disparaging the acting and stated that Wright “doesn’t belong on the screen.” They did praise both Curtis and Madison for their portrayals however.
Once “Native Son” reached Chicago, problems began. The Police Censor Board in banned “Native Son” in the city in July, with the American Civil Liberties Union announcing it was ready to help defend the filmmakers in court if a decision to release the film fell through. Filmmakers deleted scenes to finally gain the censors’ final approval months later, which Chicago papers noted led to confusion in certain scenes. The Legion of Decency ruled against the film as well, for “low moral tone and suggestive costuming… .”
Willa Pearl Curtis plays Hannah Thomas, Bigger Thomas’ mother.
The state of Ohio banned the film as well, stating that it “contributes to racial misunderstanding, presenting situations undesirable in the mutual interests of both races; against public interest in undermining confidence that justice can be carried out; presents racial friction at a time when all groups should be united against everything that is subversive,” thereby contributing to “racial misunderstanding.” Ohio’s state censor law allowed it to bar a picture “if the film is not of a moral, education or amusing and harmless character.”
Filmmakers hired Ephraim S. London to take the fight to the Ohio Supreme Court, using his winning argument at the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the film “The Miracle” that films were entitled “to the free speech and free press guarantees of the Constitution.” Ohio exhibitors, independent distributors, and the Motion Picture Association of America had been fighting Ohio’s censorship laws before London stepped in. He used novel arguments that Ohio censors required a license for screening and imposed a tax in order to publish or screen. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, so multiple submissions finally forced the Board to approve “Native Son”, but with massive cuts. Because of this and the politics of the time, “Native Son” fared poorly at the box office, receiving few screenings in later decades until it was recently restored.
While perhaps not possessing the highest production values or acting, “Native Son” still packs a powerful impact today, showing the long racism and exploitation of Blacks in this country, even affecting attempts to create and distribute films.