The Problem of the Hero is a poignant film about the complicated legacy of race relations in America. And in an era where a large swath of our country wants to squelch discussion about anything even tangentially related to race, it arrives with a serendipitous sense of punctuality. It wields the gravitas of a film like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing while using the deliberate measure of a novel like Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon. And by the time the movie’s end credits roll, you realize that issues of color and class have always been (and probably always will be) pervasive problems in America (despite what the current iteration of the Supreme Court says).
The film’s director, Shaun Dozier, uses Richard Wright’s 1940 best-selling book, Native Son, and its 1941 stage-play adaptation as backdrops for conversations about social justice, storytelling, and creative agency. The film’s story revolves around the “collaborative” effort of two artistic savants that could not be any more dichotomous: Black, communist author, Richard Wright (J. Mardrice Henderson) and White, patriot playwright, Paul Green (David zum Brunnen). Their common goal is to portray the pitiful life and times of Bigger Thomas, an impoverished, uneducated Black man, who suffers through a series of pitfalls until he ultimately finds himself in some nondescript Southern prison. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…)
The film goes on to excel at pulling back the curtain on the meticulous preparation that goes into producing a stage play of this gravity by giving us tedious rehearsals, conscientious script rewrites, and fastidious set designs. However, it quickly becomes evident that the movie’s primary mission is to delve into the psychology of American racism and economics. Wright presents the mental and emotional trauma of socioeconomic oppression while Green represents privileged, White oblivion to its effects. It may seem like low-hanging fruit, but Dozier forces you to peel an onion to reach those conclusions. Wright and Green are in violent agreement in nearly every scene in the movie, but there is an underlying discord that you’re constantly trying to diagnosis as a viewer.
Dozier makes it clear that Green earnestly wants to be an ally (despite the multitude of scenes where he's subtly but thoroughly condescending). But Green’s constitutional republic ideals make him blind to a painful reality that some of us have to actually endure. And while it’s generally fallacious to argue that a person who is "x" is incapable of speaking intelligently about people that are "y", this situation is the exception to that rule. In the case of speaking about the Black experience in America, if you’re going to do it your bona fides better be unimpeachable. The psychology of the African American experience cannot be effectively theorized by intellectuals because of how visceral the circumstances are. You need to have skin in the game to really get it. It’s a point that Dozier harps on throughout the film with Wright. And I can personally attest.
The last thing a Black person in America really wants to hear is a White American bloviating about how Black people could better endear themselves to America a la Paul Green’s plea to make Bigger Thomas a sympathetic hero. Mark Twain makes Nigger Jim “Nigger” Jim to prove a point that you’re trying to ignore, Paul Green. Black Americans have always deserved dignity. (It’s literally guaranteed by the United States Constitution.) However, it has been piecemealed to them for 250 years as if they need to earn the full serving. A serving they can only enjoy when White America deems them worthy.
It’s an inconvenient truth that The Problem of the Hero highlights. You can call it critical race theory or race-baiting. But I’m going to call it like I see it a la Richard Wright; Racism is a scourge that demonizes Black and White Americans, and its specter is real. The film’s strategic use of red, white, and blue lighting throughout its runtime services that message. The spook of melancholy that the film’s blue shading portends is sobering. The intensity of its reds pulsate with principle. Ultimately, Wright wants to demonstrate how evil begets an evil that eventually comes for all of us and Dozier nails the presentation of that atmosphere. The Native Son story is not meant to be redemptive. The Problem of the Hero intimates that the sole purpose of the Native Son adaptation is to be a horror show that reveals a darkness in America’s soul. It’s not meant to be sympathetic. It’s an honest expression of frustration.
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