Third Cinema revisited

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Sangre Negra [aka] Native Son Argentina 1950

Posted by keith1942 on August 12, 2016

Hunting a slum rat.

Hunting a slum rat.

This film, whose title literally translates as ‘Black blood’, was screened in Il Cinema Ritrovato programme ‘An Alternate History of Argentine Film’. It was only when we had an introduction that I realised that the film is an adaptation of the famous novel by Afro-American writer Richard Wright, published as ‘Native Son’ in 1940. Wright himself was involved in the making of the film and playing the main protagonist Bigger Thomas. Wright’s novel, which both attacked the then prevalent racism of the USA but which was also influenced by the association of Wright with the Communist Party USA, was not filmable in his own country. He met the man who would partly script and also direct the film, Pierre Chenal, in Paris. Chenal had been an émigré in Argentina during the war and had seen the stage version created by Orson Welles in Buenos Aires. Since they could not arouse interest in Europe the pair produced the film in Argentina through Argentine Sono Film.

Wright’s seminal novel traces a series of events in which young black man Bigger Thomas is inadvertently involved in the killing of a white woman. The hysterical and racist outcry leads to his imprisonment, trial and execution. One gets a sense of Wright’s portrayal in the diatribe delivered by the prosecutor  at the trial which includes the following:

“Every decent white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard, to keep him from scuttling on his belly farther over the earth and spitting forth his venom of death!” (1972 Penguin edition).

Bigger is not portrayed as innocent, in his flight from pursuit he kills his black girlfriend Bessie to protect himself. But there is no balance between his acts and the response of the predominately racist white population: indeed he is charged with both murder and rape, despite the lack of evidence for the latter. Wright’s purpose in the novel was not just to depict and attack white racism but also to portray the effect on the negro [the term then used] population. In his introduction ‘How ‘Bigger’ was born’ Wright writes of one model:

“The Jim Crow laws of the South were not for him. But as he laughed and cursed and broke them, he knew that someday he’d have to pay for his freedom. His rebellious spirit made him violate all the taboos of intense elation and depression. “

One of the most powerful aspects of the novel is that Wright provides a running commentary on Bigger’s thoughts and emotions, from his family life in a slum, through his conflicted contacts with white people, his crime and subsequent flight and the trial and sentencing.

The film condenses the novel greatly, one section left out is the extended plea by the defence lawyer at the trial: that seems more didactic than the sequence in the film. It does retain the opening scene of the novel as Bigger hunts a rat that is terrorising the family slum. The film does eschew the subjective element, there is no attempt to present Bigger’s mental state nor any voice-over. So we see a fairly conventional cinematic narrative following Bigger through the few days as the events unfold. The filmmakers manage to recreate a sense of the Chicago of the book, though not the snow, with the book set around the New Year. They cut between studio sets in Buenos Aires and stock footage of the actual Chicago. The film has at times a strong expressionist and noir feel, especially in the sequences in which Bigger is hunted down. There is an impressive rooftop pursuit which ends under a looming water tower.

Bigger and Bessie

Bigger and Bessie

In the novel Bigger is 20 years of age but Wright in the film is clearly much older. And he is better at the fear than the anger of his character. Bessie seems more of a good-time girl than in the novel. Several US film actors appear in the film including Jean Wallace as the victim Mary Dalton together with amateur black actors. This did not assist the release in the USA; 14 minutes were cut from the film. It seems that the UK release was the cut version.

The film has something of a hybrid status. The Argentine film programme basically slotted into the category of a national cinema, with some level of critical engagement. But there is no sign of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist standpoint that emerged only a few years later with the work of Solanas and Getino. However, Santa Negra, with its US setting and engagement with the situation of negroes/Afro-Americans is essentially a film about civil rights. It was the most oppositional of the films that I saw in the programme, but of a different ilk from them. The full-length version, screened at the Venice Film Festival, was thought lost. But a film historian found a 16mm print which was used to reconstruct the 35mm version by the Library of Congress. Whilst it is a lesser work than the original novel, it is a powerful representation of the period and situation and hopefully will receive wider circulation.

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