Picks and Pans Review: Native Son

updated 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

There's a star-making role at the center of this drama, but unfortunately it won't make a star of Victor Love, the young actor who inhabits—or in this case inhibits—the title role. In Richard Wright's 1940 novel about racism and retribution in Chicago, Bigger Thomas was the embodiment of oppressed youth and repressed rage. But Love isn't incendiary—and without passion he can't achieve the pathos of Wright's book, which, after all, detailed an American tragedy. Brought into a wealthy white household as a chauffeur, Bigger accidentally kills the daughter who has befriended him. As he goes on trial, so does the American class system. Director Jerrold Freedman treats the classic novel as a classic. The movie has no life or voice of its own, but neither does it properly honor Wright's work. The novelist painted Bigger as the pawn in a cruel urban panorama, but Freedman deals mainly in close-ups and redundant claustrophobia—perhaps the necessary evils of a $2.5 million budget. In an all-star cast that includes Oprah Winfrey as Bigger's mother and Geraldine Page as the family cook, it is the two performers with the least sympathetic roles who most skillfully interpret Wright's characterization. As Bigger's beloved victim, Elizabeth McGovern gives her most incisive performance. Wearing a coy smile with her white gloves, she clearly understands the condescension that this woman markets as compassion. Playing her communist boyfriend, Matt Dillon strips away his mannerisms. It's surely some of the best work of these young actors, and when this couple takes Bigger out on the town, where he experiences a night of inadvertent humiliation, the movie is temporarily in sync with Wright's vision of anguish and ambivalence. Watching Native Son when these two are absent from the screen, you feel certain that Junior High School students everywhere will admire it. They should, since it seems to have been fashioned solely for them. (PG)

From Our Partners