Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Richard Wright's Literary Odyssey

In 1945 Black Boy, Richard Wright's searing, no-holds-barred account of his youth in racist, apartheid Mississippi, was published and became a runaway bestseller as well as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

Fifty years later, in 1995, New York's Thirteen/WNET commemorated that event by telecasting Richard Wright: Black Boy on September 4 (on what would have been his 87th birthday). The 90-minute film is the first full-length documentary on the life and career of the late writer.

A co-production of Mississippi Educational Television and the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Independent Television Service, Richard Wright: Black Boy was three years in the making. Its producer, Madison Davis Lacy, whose previous films include Eyes on the Prize II and Paris Is Burning, "was initially interested in pursuing Wright's expatriation (to France), and the phenomenon of expatriation as a dynamic in African-American culture." But that plan changed when Lacy "discovered (in Wright) a self-taught literary genius of tremendous political conviction. At 19 years old," continues Lacy, a longtime veteran of the documentary form, "Wright told a friend 'I want my life to count for something.' Somehow he was able to crystallize that determination and his understanding of racial oppression into a reason to write on behalf of himself and his people."

Narrated by film actor J. A. Preston (Body Heat and Two-Minute Warning), Richard Wright: Black Boy chronicles Wright's 52-year odyssey that began in 1908 in rural Mississippi and ended prematurely in 1960 in France through dramatic excerpts from his work, historical footage, and on-camera interviews with his daughter Julia (the film's consultant), historian John Henrik Clarke, poet/playwright Amiri Baraka, novelist/Wright biographer Margaret Walker Alexander, literary critic Michael Dyson, among others.

The film was the recipient of a 1994 Southwest Regional Emmy.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News, September 2, 1995.

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