Native Son the novel came out in 1940 and in late March of 1941 a stage adaptation opened in New York, so it was only a matter of time before someone decided to make a film.
Wright for a long time resisted offers to make the film, because he worried that the desire to make a profit would override his message. Early offers from American producers involved significant changes: MGM wanted to recast the African Americans as whites. Michel Fabre recounts one offer that Wright had from an American producer, Joseph Fields: he wanted to film the novel with Bigger as a member of a white ethnic minority who applied for a job along with a Pole, an Italian, a Negro, and Jew, which sounds like a bad joke in addition to having little to do with the novel.For this reason, he shunned Hollywood and looked toward European producers.
Wright eventually entered into an agreement with Pierre Chenal, a French film maker. Chenal agreed to stick to the novel and suggested that Wright play the role of Bigger. Production became a problem, when it was clear that the American government was not interested in seeing the movie made: U.S. pressure on the French government forced a French studio to remove themselves from the project. In the face of this censorship, Chenal moved production to Argentina, where he had lived during World War II.
In August 1949, Wright and Chenal travelled to Chicago to film the outdoor scenes. Toward the end of September, Wright left for Argentina on a boat from New York City.
Filming took longer than expected and several difficulties ensued. First, the entire production had to contend with the Peron dictatorship. Second, dishonest business practices threatened the project. Jaime Prades, a Uruguayan who was Chenal's business associate, had conveniently changed the terms of the contract in his Spanish translation, a problem compounded by the fact that someone had stolen Wright's copy of the contract from his hotel room. In addition, Attilio Mentasti, the director of the Argentinian studio, was upset because Prade had misled him on the time needed to complete the project. Wright thought he had solved these problems by drawing up a secret agreement with Mentasti, but Mentasti wasn't eager to respect the terms of the contract. The film did get made, however, and its premiere showing took place on 4 November 1950, aboard a Pan American strato-clipper. The following March it opened in Buenos Aires and was a resounding success.
Following the film's reception in Argentina, Wright was eager to repeat its success in America, but his hopes never materialized. Before the film could even appear on America's screens, the New York State Board of Censors demanded that its distributor, Walter Gould, cut the film substantially. Gould complied, cutting half an hour (2500 feet of film) from the original one hour forty-five minute length. Wright was most horrified by the editing of the trial scene, reducing Max's speeches to silent panning across the crowded courtroom. Other states refused entirely to allow the movie in their theaters. In all, the U.S. tour was beset by distribution problems as well as increased criticism of the acting. Wright refused to allow the film to be distributed in France, fearing that his reputation would suffer if he allowed the cut version to show and feeling his position was not strong enough to withstand the criticism from the American community if the complete version appeared. The film did enjoy a brief European resurgence after its showing at the Venice Film Festival, but Wright would never see any financial return on his adventure.
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