Native Son (1986)




Critic Consensus: No consensus yet.

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Previously filmed in Argentina in 1951, black author Richard Wright's powerful race-conscious novel Native Son was remade in this barely released 1986 version. The story involves Bigger Thomas (Victor Love), an angry Depression-era Chicago black who hopes to elevate himself through his chauffeur's job with a prosperous white Gold Coast family. The family's daughter (Elizabeth McGovern) takes advantage of Bigger's servile status by ordering him to drive her to a rendezvous with her communist-activist lover (Matt Dillon). Their "parlor liberal" attitude both pleases and confuses Bigger, as do the girl's apparent sexual advances toward him. One evening, Bigger drives the girl home after she's gotten herself drunk. She flirts harmlessly with him in her bedroom; when her blind mother (Carroll Baker) stumbles onto the scene, the terrified Bigger, certain that he'll be accused of rape, tries to muffle the girl so she can't talk. He accidentally kills her, whereupon the panicky Bigger hides the body and tries to pin the girl's "kidnapping" on her lover. Tragedy piles upon tragedy before Bigger's climactic murder trial and execution; throughout, we are given the impression that this sorry state of affairs would never have taken place without the black-white tensions and divisiveness that existed in 1930s, and which still exist to this day. During the trial scene, TV talk host Oprah Winfrey makes a heavily-made-up cameo appearance as Bigger's mother. The whole scene has the earmarks of an "Oscar clip," but Oprah's excessive histrionics pale in comparison to her brilliant, well-modulated performance in the earlier The Color Purple. The 1986 version of Native Son was co-produced by PBS' American Playhouse.
PG (adult situations/language, violence)
Directed By:
Written By:
In Theaters:
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Victor Love
as Bigger Thomas
Elizabeth McGovern
as Mary Dalton
Carroll Baker
as Mrs. Dalton
Akosua Busia
as Bessie
John McMartin
as Mr. Dalton
David Rasche
as Buckley
Lane Smith
as Britton
Oprah Winfrey
as Mrs. Thomas
Arell Blanton
as White Man #3
Adam Gregor
as Reporter #2
Chuck Hicks
as White Man #4
John Otrin
as Reporter #1
Richard Wesley
as Bartender
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Critic Reviews for Native Son

All Critics (9) | Top Critics (4)

The film makers haven't listened to Wright. They appear to have been aiming at the same genteel audience that insists on seeing something sentimental and upbeat even in a television movie-of-the-week about AIDS.

Full Review… | May 20, 2003
New York Times
Top Critic

The movie understands that the story really is about the killer's point of view. It is not the story of a crime, not a docudrama, not a sociological essay.

Full Review… | December 31, 1999
Chicago Sun-Times
Top Critic

Transforms the novel into an all-too-genteel crime story, denuded of rage, devoid of social and historic context.

Full Review… | December 31, 1999
Washington Post
Top Critic

Unfortunately, drama translates as melodrama and speechy, preachy dialogue tells us we're watching something that's good for us.

Full Review… | December 31, 1999
Washington Post
Top Critic

Ultimately, the film fails because of Silver's fears of offending the audience, the same fear that Wright himself faced and overcame.

Full Review… | August 20, 2010
TV Guide

Well-intended but deadly dull

January 11, 2004
Kalamazoo Gazette

Audience Reviews for Native Son

Okay, the two worst parts of this movie -- the fact that the cut down Books 2 and 3 into 20 minutes. Book 3 had the most interesting character development, insight, and interactions, but they showed NONE OF IT. Because of this, the pacing was awful and it made this film seem like a waste of time. The second worst part was the MUSIC. It sounded like leftovers from Sesame Street. It didn't fit at all, and made scenes unintentionally humorous.

Allegra F
Allegra F

loved the storyline but didn't liked how it turned out....i felt really sorry for bigger thomas, actually felt sorry for the whole family....

Sweet Poetic Roni
Sweet Poetic Roni

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