In 1941, Richard Wright's Native Son became the first novel written by a Black man ever to make it to the Broadway stage. Co-produced by icons Orson Welles and John Houseman, the adaptation was co-penned by Wright with Paul Green. The play ran for 114 performances and garnered warm, positive reviews.
The Problem of the Hero is a narrative feature that grounds itself within the tapestry of this experience, though the film itself is historical fiction. Set only days from opening night, the film tackles a disagreement between the two authors about a single page within the script. This conflict was known to have been real - Green, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, wanted a key character in the story, Bigger, to find religion and have what would be essentially a redemptive arc. For the bestselling Wright, such an approach violated the very essence of his writing.
This conflict, we know for a fact, is true. The conversation that unfolds in the emotionally honest and fiercely engaging The Problem of the Hero is a fictional glimpse into the unfolding conversation that taps into the foundation for both men that involves race, social justice, politics, and personal/creative agency. It was a conflict that threatened this friendship and as presented here constantly raises the questions "Who has the right to tell a story?" and "What obligations exist in telling the story?"
While The Problem of the Hero is an ensemble piece of cinema, it's truly a powerhouse for co-leads J. Mardice Henderson, as Wright, and David Zum Brunnen as Green. The two share a remarkable chemistry, infusing their scenes with passion and wisdom, insight and a sort of cultural intimacy. It's powerful to watch these two different worldviews come to life - Green is a white man known as a social justice advocate, though he's also a patriot who believes that eventually America will right itself culturally. On the other hand, Wright is decidedly not an optimist as a Black man whose lived experience tells him otherwise. By this time, he's a communist planning to move to France where he believes he will be more free. The two have bridges of common understanding divided by different worldviews, different lived experiences, and pretty much different everything.
Wright, it would seem, understands Green's position yet rejects it wholly.
The Problem of the Hero is intelligent, engaging cinema that feels staged in all the best ways as we feel the tensions yet we also feel the chemistry throughout. The lensing work by Steve Milligan is masterful in capturing the spoken and unspoken language, the physicality of each character and the shadows that constantly seem to follow them. Seldom has an indie feature been lensed so beautifully.
The script by James A. Hodge and Ian Finley captivates with drive, passion, and tremendous depth. There are no histrionic conflicts to be found here - every word feels necessary and vital and relevant.
After three shorts, this is director Shaun Dozier's feature debut and it's a beautiful one as he beautifully frames every moment and sets a tone that is immersive and difficult to shake even as the closing credits are rolling.
The Problem of the Hero is the kind of film that will have you rushing over to the internet to find out more about this rather remarkable story brought to life in a fresh, meaningful way here by cast and crew. It's impossible to watch The Problem of the Hero and thinking how incredibly relevant it remains now and how, in fact, Richard Wright was so spot-on to defend the integrity of his work.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic