Native Son Review (Retro Reviews): Restored and Re-Released.
Bigger Thomas keeps getting in bigger problems.
Native Son had a troubled past. When it was released back in 1951 it was censored, but now with this new restoration we are the closest we have ever been to having the finished product. Being about the troubles that black people faced while also having the censorship issue really makes this release one of interest, especially given the current climate. So the only question is, after all the time and effort required to make this happen, was it worth it?
Unfortunately, I can only give a very meek yes. It might be a little half-hearted, it may not be very enthusiastic, but it is ultimately still a yes. I just wish that this would have been a better film than it ended up being.
I won’t spend the entire review comparing this with the remake that I saw in 2019 but I want to briefly mention it because a) I didn’t even realize it was a remake of an older movie when I watched it and b) it’s a much better film in almost every single way except for context.
Let’s just acknowledge the elephant in the room: the social analysis in the 1951 original has some relevance today, but was paramount back when it was released. We have made some progress so it’s important to view Native Son as it was intended back then, back when people would be racist more freely and were more allowed to do so. I try to steer clear of weighing in on current issues on here because I want this to just be a movie website, but I don’t know that any reasonable person would ever try to make the case that back in the 1950s black people didn’t have valid grievances.
So because of that the subject matter hits hard. Watching it now all I could think about was how I wish I could have seen it in the climate of when it was released, so I could see just how controversial that would have been, to see the impact it would have. It tackles some serious affairs with militant methods. It’s not exactly a Spike Lee joint with Spike Lee attitude, but it certainly doesn’t shy away from matters.
The largest obstacle to pull myself over was simply that the dialogue and acting is horrendous. I love old movies and acknowledge that the acting style was different back then, but this goes way beyond that. The opening scene was so chocked-full of terrible writing and delivery that it made it feel like a bad after school special. It’s the equivalent of somebody walking into the room, eyeing the crowd and announcing, “Hey guys, you know what’s baaaaad? RACISM BY GOLLY!” I knew the dialogue and acting was a problem because I laughed. There was nothing in Native Son that was meant to encourage you to chuckle.
On that note, it’s not all bad. The plot itself has some twists and turns that still work today. How do I know this? When I watched the 2019 adaptation of the novel there was a particular scene that genuinely surprised me. That same scene, though done differently to some extent obviously, exists in the original version as well. I can only imagine how shocking this might have been back in 1951 because it actually got me 68 years later. It’s more powerful in this version because while it would be a problem even now, there would be a lot more enormity and attached baggage back then. So that still works.
It’s not the pacing of the plot that’s the problem because outside of the occasional snag it’s well thought out in that regard. Sometimes it moves a little too quickly and doesn’t do a great job of setting the scene, while occasionally it also moves too slow. I think the final act was a little too swift and I would have liked to see more from the more reflective part of the film. It was strongest then, but it’s never irritating because it goes down some interesting paths and takes some challenging turns along the way.
There were was neat staging. There was one building in particular with its framing of a giant staircase that felt a little more inspired than the rest of the film, which played it basic mostly. There were also a few lighting choices that came into effect that were typical of film noir in that period but I love that stuff so I never tire of seeing darkened faces, half in and half out of the light. Nowadays it’s a trope but it endures because it’s efficient to both describe a character and set a tone.
Native Son is a film that I wanted to love. It’s got its place in history and has a cool backstory for its release. It’s a type of movie that one would like to champion. I described more positives than negatives but those negatives are pretty massive. Without some of the plot twists and the excitement of said plot twists this would have been a lot weaker and maybe would have become bad enough to not even recommend; but as it stands now, it’s mediocre… which is still a passing grade technically.
THAT'S ENOUGH, GET TO THE SCORE
WISH WE COULD HAVE RESTORED SOME BETTER DIALOGUE
Native Son falls flat in the dialogue and acting, which makes the characterization a little harder to be impressed by as well. With that said, the plot itself is fun with some nice twists, and the film is never boring. This just should have been a lot more than it was.