Last night (Tuesday) was a night of African-American films at Noir City, or Noir Noir night.
NATIVE SON (1951): First up was this enormously significant cultural artifact, based on the groundbreaking novel by Richard Wright, who also stars as the main character Bigger Thomas. Eddie Muller actually started his introduction by showing a brief film clip of prominent African Americans talking about the significance of Wright's novel (which, I confess, I had never heard of before.) He then told the story of how hard it was to get this novel to the screen. Knowing Hollywood would cut it up and destroy it, Wright collaborated with director Pierre Chenal to make the movie in Argentina (with Buenos Aires filling in for the streets of Chicago, although there are some inserts of the Chicago skyline shot on the sly to establish location.) He also explained how they were on a tight schedule when their intended leading man Canada Lee dropped out (citing that he was too old--in his 40's--to play the 25 year old Bigger Thomas.) So Wright stepped in at the last minute, despite trepidation that he wasn't an actor. Yeah, he's not an actor, but honestly his acting wasn't the least polished aspect of the movie. It was a movie made with heart and determination, if not a lot of talent. Bigger gets a job driving for a wealthy white man. His first night on the job, he's supposed to take the daughter to college, but instead she insists on picking up a friend and going out drinking. They're both young, liberal (communist), enlightened kids who will solve racism all by themselves. Their naivety--that they'll fix centuries of evil by taking their new black friend (not that he had any choice whether or not to be their friend) drinking--is downright cringe-inducing. But it gets worse, When Bigger takes the girl home, while trying to keep her quiet he accidentally smothers her. And then, fearing the worst, he disposes of her body int he furnace. And things just get worse and worse and worse for him. It's really a powerful story--it has to be to make you sympathize with a [SPOILER!] multiple murderer. And although there's no doubt it's Noir, there's also an important distinction to an African-American story. In most Noir, there's a moment (often several) when the doomed hero could have chosen to do the right thing and everything would have turned out better (if not all right, at least better.) In this case, although there were several chances to do the right thing, I never got the sense that things would have been better. The fact is, the moment the girl decided to be stupid and drunk around a black man, he was as good as dead.
INTRUDER IN THE DUST (1949): And then the second half of the double bill was this story written by William Faulkner. And before the film, we were treated to a surprise introduction by the film's young star Claude Jarman, Jr. (not quite so young anymore, but still still plenty energetic.) He plays young Chick Mallison, and as the movie opens he witnesses his old, black friend Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez, who is simply brilliant in the film) being hauled off to jail for murder. Seems he was caught with a smoking gun standing over the corpse of a white man who had been shot in the back. So he asks Chick to go and ask his uncle John (David Brian) to defend him. And he promptly refuses to take the case. But Chick investigates on his own, and with the help of the heroic old Miss Eunice Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson) they...well, I don't want to a spoil it. A crackin' good tale, with some splendid acting and more than its fair share of (well-deserved) moralizing.
Total Running Time: 191 minutes
My Total Minutes: 312,290