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Pierre Chenal, 1951
USA/Argentina | English, Spanish with subtitles | Format: 35mm | 104 minutes
When the French director Pierre Chenal teamed with American novelist Richard Wright to create a film version of Wright’s controversial bestseller Native Son, they quickly realized it would be impossible to make such a film in America. The year was 1950, with the Civil Rights Movement still in its infancy and Sidney Poitier just beginning to change the image of blacks in Hollywood movies—and Wright’s novel dealt with that most taboo of subjects: a poor black man charged with the murder of a wealthy white woman. So Chenal and Wright decamped for Buenos Aires, where the author was cast in the lead role of the persecuted Bigger Thomas, and the story’s Chicago setting was meticulously reconstructed on the stages of Argentina Sono Film studio. When it was released the following year, Native Son became a local critical and commercial success, but upon export to the U.S. the film was shorn of nearly 30 minutes—including all of its most provocative racial content—by the New York State Board of Censors. For decades, Chenal’s original version was feared lost, until a complete print recently resurfaced in Argentina, which provided the standard for this restoration undertaken by the Library of Congress. The results reveal a flawed but fascinating film light years ahead of its time in its depiction of race, as well as a rare, very stylish example of African-American film noir. Special thanks for this screening to Edgardo Krebs (Smithsonian Institution) and Fernando Martin Peña (Malba Museo de Arte Latinoamerico de Buenos Aires), who teamed to recover the film and research its complicated history. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Edgardo Krebs and journalist Stanley Crouch.