Segments in this Video

Remembering Richard Wright (01:09)


People who knew Richard Wright describe the impact he had on them and other black artists.

Wright's Racially Charged Environment (01:36)

In the early 1940s, black people lived under extreme oppression and in relative obscurity in white America. This was the world from which Wright emerged and which he aimed to transform.

"Native Son's" Explosion onto the Literary Scene (01:28)

"Native Son" came "like a sledgehammer," with a huge impact on readers of all races. The indictment of racism by a black author was considered radical. "Native Son" became a bestseller and earned Wright a place in the spotlight, as well as the voice to speak for millions of silenced people.

Background on "Native Son" (01:28)

"Native Son" is set in 1930s Chicago. Wright had experience in the South Side of Chicago, where black residents faced harsh living conditions. In one scene from "Native Son," the protagonist, Bigger, kills a rat in his South Side home.

Aims & Themes in "Native Son" (01:41)

Wright believed the environment had a great impact on the individual. The character, Bigger Thomas, comes to grips with his own internal demons, as well as external forces of oppression. Wright hoped to shock audiences into recognition.

Scenes from "Native Son" & Fear as Driving Force (02:16)

Bigger gets a job as a driver for a white family. In the midst of deep fear, he commits accidental murder. Fear becomes Bigger's driving force for the rest of the novel and forms a major part of Wright's thesis on race relations.

Wright's Birth in Jim Crow South (02:30)

Wright's parents lived in the Jim Crow south, near the Mississippi River. Wright was born in 1908 on the Mississippi plantation where his father and grandfather had been slaves. He inherited his sensibility from his mother.

Childhood Hardship (01:42)

In 1914, WWI brought collapse in the cotton industry, and Wright's family migrated north to Memphis. His father left, and Wright's mother placed him and his brother in an orphanage. He began begging on the streets. Ella Wright then moved her children to Arkansas.

White Terror & "Between the World and Me" (03:21)

In Arkansas, white men killed Wright's uncle for ownership of his successful saloon. Wright later wrote "Between the World and Me," a poem dedicated to a victim of lynching. This signaled the beginning of Wright's mission to write about the experience of racism, which stood between him and the world.

School & Life with Grandmother (02:55)

Wright moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where his mother suffered a stroke. His "Granny" was a devout Christian who forced religious fear upon him. Wright hated the regimentation of school and took refuge in reading and storytelling.

Quitting School & Moving Out (02:23)

Wright dropped out of school at age 15. While working in Memphis, he found inspiration in language. Then, he moved to Chicago in search of identity. Margaret Alexander says the real Richard Wright was always bottled up deep beneath the surface.

Work in Chicago & Introduction to Communist Party (03:03)

Wright moved to Chicago at the onset of the Great Depression. He got a job with the Post Office, where many highly educated black men worked. Wright was recruited to work for the John Reed Club, an affiliate of the Communist Party.

Wright's Growth Within Communist Party (01:57)

In 1934, Wright joined the Communist Party, where his writing abilities improved and flourished. Experts describe the Communist Party as the first to aggressively address the issues of the African-American community. People who knew Wright describe his below-the-surface rage, which he hid well in social relations.

Chicago's Black Renaissance (01:43)

Arts and culture flourished in the South Side. Wright and other writers published their work in "The Anvil."n 1936, Wright organized a writers' group with Langston Hughes and Margaret Walker.

"Big Boy Leaves Home": Depiction of White Terrorism in the South (02:36)

A passage from "Big Boy Leaves Home" depicts a terrifying lynching in the south and explores themes of race-based fear and desperation. Wright was praised for his scathing descriptions of white terror in the American south.

Disenchantment with Communist Party & Chicago (03:34)

Wright's growing notoriety as a writer conflicted with the Communist leaders' distaste for "bourgeois intellectuals." He prioritized his art over all else, and party officials were jealous of his success. Wright made the difficult decision to leave for New York.

Career in New York (01:50)

In New York, Wright published short stories and began writing "Native Son." One friend describes Wright's process as one of "passionate discovery."

"Native Son": Exploration of Humanity Through Violence (01:33)

In "Native Son," Bigger discovers his humanity because of his brutal environment and through tremendous acts of violence. Many see Bigger as an inevitable product of his racist and violent society.

"Native Son": Praise & Criticism (02:11)

"Native Son" became a bestseller and achieved success that was atypical of work by black writers. Wright received many awards and requests for adaptation. Communists criticized the book, but Wright maintained there were men, like Bigger, whom no political party could speak to.

Wright's Friction With Communist Party (00:58)

The Communist Party struggled with how to manage Wright, who continued to speak in party circles. Wright simultaneously criticized the party in his work and shed a positive light on it in the public eye.

Marriage, FBI Investigation, & Leaving the Communist Party (02:46)

In 1941, Wright married Ellen Poplar, a white member of the Communist Party, and had a daughter named Julia. During WWI, the FBI investigated Wright for sedition. Feeling the Communist Party had given up on black people, Wright quit.

"Black Boy": An Autobiography (03:00)

Wright set out to write his autobiography, which he titled, "Black Boy." In one passage, he recalls an early memory of setting fire to curtains and being beaten as punishment. "Black Boy" soared to the top of the bestseller list, receiving both fearful criticism and high praise.

Wright's Talents, Goals, & Southern Influence (01:49)

Wright was known for his keen memory and sense of rage. He was interested in his status as a human above all other categorizations. At his core was the south, in all its tragedy and complexity.

Racial Antagonism & HUAC Investigations (01:52)

Though Wright lived in the famed, liberal Greenwich Village, he faced racist harassment in his own neighborhood. The House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating prominent black artists and activists.

Exile & Freedom in France (02:44)

Wright refused to inform on his Communist friends and, escaping pressure, took exile in Paris. He was determined to take the story of the black man to the world. In France, he was treated as a writer and as a man, without the weight of oppression.

Wright's Love of Paris (01:51)

Wright's daughter, Julia, recalls playful memories of their time in France. Wright loved Paris and divided his time among home, cafes, and bookstores.

Unsuccessful Film Adaptation of "Native Son" (02:40)

Wright played Bigger Thomas in a 1951 film version of "Native Son," which featured a new dream sequence. Critics called the film, and especially Wright's performance, a failure.

"Un-American" Writing & Censorship (02:17)

The editor of "Ebony Magazine" refused to print Wright's article,"I Chose Exile," which attacked the loss of liberty in the United States. Experts postulate Wright would have been destroyed by HUAC, like his friends, had he returned to the U.S.

"The Outsider" & Criticism of Wright's Intellectualism (01:11)

In Paris, Wright had a second daughter, Rachel, and published "The Outsider." He felt insulted by critics who called him overly intellectual.

Complexities of Being an Expatriate in Paris (02:10)

Black expatriates in Paris made a statement against the United States, which inspired other Americans to emigrate. The French used Wright as an example of their open-mindedness. He thrived in the intellectual community and grew as an activist.

Anti-imperialism Activism (01:23)

Wright concerned himself with "the color question," or the issue of independence of African and Asian countries from European control. When Paris became the center of the African Liberation Movement, Wright began to feel like he could be the voice for black people everywhere.

Ghanaian Independence & Wright's Cultural Identity Crisis (02:59)

Wright participated in the Ghanaian independence movement. He wrote "Black Power," but felt that Ghanaian people and culture were alien to him, causing him to feel American. His nonfiction works from this time period met with dismissive criticism.

Dilemma Over Algerian Independence Movement (03:23)

In the late 1950s, when Algerians rose up against French rule, Wright felt sympathetic to their cause but also knew his status as a visitor in France prohibited political involvement. Wright and other American ex-pats grew paranoid.

Financial, Physical, & Emotional Hardship (02:23)

Wright took refuge from the city in the Normandy countryside. His daughter, Julia, sheds light on how he spent his time. There, he wrote "The Long Dream." He suffered from debilitating amoebiasis, financial problems, and depression.

Wright's Last Writing Period (02:14)

Denied a British visa, Wright lived alone, went to artists' retreats, and wrote haiku. Some critics believe he lost touch with his southern black roots.

"The Long Dream": Scenes & Criticism (03:29)

"The Long Dream" features provocative images and takes place in Natchez, Mississippi. Tyree, an undertaker responsible for burying a lynching victim, warns his son, Fish, not to dream too big but, rather, to survive. Wright defended Tyree against criticism.

Last Days & Death (02:33)

Wright's financial situation worsened until paid work finally disappeared altogether. Rumors still circulate about whether or not his death involved foul play. He was cremated and memorialized among other artistic greats in France.

Richard Wright's Legacy (01:48)

Poet, Amiri Baraka, describes the influence Richard Wright had on him. Margaret Walker believes Wright represents a turning point in the black literary canon.

Credits: Richard Wright: Black Boy (01:54)

Credits: Richard Wright: Black Boy

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Richard Wright: Black Boy

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This program presents a biography of Richard Wright, author of Black Boy and Native Son, taking viewers from his impoverished childhood to his involvement in Chicago’s Black Renaissance, the Communist Party, and the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era, to his exile and death in Paris. Underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the film skillfully intercuts dramatic excerpts from Wright’s work with historical footage and the recollections of friends, associates, and luminaries that include Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, and Wright’s daughter, Julia. (86 minutes)

Length: 88 minutes

Item#: BVL49760

Copyright date: ©1994

Closed Captioned

Reviews & Awards

 “Powerfully presents an unforgettable record of the life, times, achievements, and influences of one of the key figures of 20th century literature. Scholarly and creative, it is an ideal introduction.”  —Keneth Kinnamon (Richard Wright: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Commentary)

“A fine teaching tool....The impressive commentators give an admirable sense of the intellectual/discursive legacy of Richard Wright.”  —Houston A. Baker, Jr., Duke University

“Valuable as a film, it is priceless as a teaching tool with its vivid scenes and highlighted commentary...A soaring testimony to the man and his work.”  —John A. Williams

“A thoughtful, artistic film.Required viewing, whether Richard Wright is an old friend or this is your introduction to one of America’s greatest novelists.”  —John Edgar Wideman, Brown University

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