The actors on location in an old police station here sit at the witness table with heads down, arms locked over their ears.
Oprah Winfrey, fresh from her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Sofia in "The Color Purple," and Victor Love are playing mother and son in the remake of Richard Wright's powerful, brutal and tautly written novel "Native Son," and they are seeking silence.
For the moment they happen to be alone, waiting for other actors to arrive. They are trying to blot out the commotion xr of film crews, the lights and the sounds as they prepare for a segment in Scene 139: a crucial, emotional jailhouse confrontation in which the accused murderer's mother, who is black, pleads with the murder victim's mother, who is white, for the life of her son, Bigger.
The framework of "Native Son" is race. Bigger kills Mary Dalton (Elizabeth McGovern) without premeditation during an acute moment of panic. In the taking of life, he finds meaning for the emptiness of his own. Bigger then deliberately kills his black girlfriend, Bessie (Akosua Busia, who played Nettie in "Color Purple"). But it is the first victim -- the white victim -- who becomes the focus of public attention.
For the third year in a row, following "A Soldier's Story" (1984) and "The Color Purple" (1985), Hollywood is tackling an xl important, relevant and possibly controversial theme dealing with black America.
With cameras ready to roll, Winfrey sucks in deep breaths, as if ready for a downhill ski race. Hands manacled, xl a nasty bruise on his forehead, Love bottles his emotions. His face, reflecting the screen writer's description, is like "an African mask."
"Please, ma'am, please," says Mrs. Thomas, kneeling before Mrs. Dalton as both women try to fight away tears. "Please, I know I got no place with you. But please, don't let them kill my son . . . "
"Mama, no!" cries Bigger involuntarily.
As portrayed in Wright's 1940 classic, Bigger Thomas has become a metaphor for the consequences of alienation, anger and fear in the urban, ghettoized North.
Richard Wesley, the 40-year-old black screen writer who adapted the book for Diane Silver Productions, says he understands why Wright called the antihero "Bigger" -- the name a rhythmic reminder of the hated epithet. In the script Wesley kept close to the plot and mood of the novel, muting the communist element as well as some of the gorier violence.
"On a certain level, Bigger Thomas is indeed the black nightmare of white America," says Wesley, a 1967 graduate of Howard University who has written plays for Joseph Papp and movies ("Uptown Saturday Night," "Fast Forward") for Sidney Poitier. "Wright deliberately wrote him in a way in which it was impossible for anyone to have a kind of fawning liberal sentimentality about him. You had to take him on his own terms . . . " Unlike Steven Spielberg's glossy film version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Color Purple" -- costing up to $15 million -- "Native Son" was put together on a spare $2 million budget. It is bound to attract attention for Silver, a producer seemingly out of nowhere who somehow has managed to garner a major work and an intriguing cast for this, her first feature film. Shooting ended Friday.
On the set, Silver speaks so softly that at times she is barely audible. Sentences get buried under shy sputters of laughter. One senses a certain vagueness. Nevertheless, those involved on the project say it would not have happened without her.
"She has this very quiet confidence," says Wesley. "Everyone's going, 'Oh it can't be done, and she says, 'Oh yes, it will . . . fine . . . good, it'll be done.' And she'd just go ahead and do it."
Silver grew up in Chicago -- "on the far North Side -- middle class, upper middle class, a white ghetto, all right?" When she was about 7, her father, an automobile dealer, took her to nearby Evanston, "and showed me where black people, who were doctors and businessmen, lived, and he said if anybody ever tells you that poverty is endemic to blacks," she would know otherwise.
In 1965 she went down to Alabama for the civil rights cause and marched in Selma.
After graduating from the University of Illinois, Silver went to New York, became a magazine writer and eventually moved to documentaries.
Silver first read "Native Son" eight years ago and figured that someday she would do it as a movie. She had not read the book earlier, she said, because "under [then Chicago mayor Richard J.] Daley's administration, it was taken off the required [school] reading lists."
The idea of a movie gained momentum when she discussed it with a director friend and they were talking about how "the networks and movie studios are not into doing anything meaningful."
Then she went off to sell her idea.
Silver got PBS' "American Playhouse" to back development and hired Wesley as screen writer and Jerrold Freedman, who has worked mostly in television, as director. "Native Son" was originally slated for TV. However, after reading Wesley's script, Lindsay Law, "American Playhouse" executive director, said, 'This is wonderful; it's a feature.' We drank champagne," Silver said.
She eventually put together a combination of a cassette advance from Vestron (the videocassette manufacturer), a distribution advance from Cinecom (an independent theatrical distributor) and more money from "American Playhouse," which will air the film two years after its release.
The cast came on board because of the caliber of "Native Son." Carroll Baker, who plays McGovern's mother, got the script in London. "As I flipped through it I got so involved . . . "
"I think good material is hard to find at any time," says Geraldine Page, this year's best-actress Oscar winner for "The Trip to Bountiful," who is cast as the Dalton family maid. "And everyone who read this script was really excited by it."
The "Native Son" title role is the first movie role for Love, 28, a classically oriented actor.
Matt Dillon plays Jan, Mary's boyfriend, and John Carlin (Harvey Lacey on TV's "Cagney & Lacey") is Max, Bigger's defense attorney.
Asked whether she is concerned that "Native Son," viewed on a surface level, might fuel racist stereotypes of a violent black man -- one of the issues involved in the controversy over "The Color Purple" -- Silver replies softly: "Our movie? . . . The message of the movie is that the danger lies in the fear we all have of each other."
"I just don't think that the majority of people who will see this movie will carry that kind of myopia into the theaters with them," Wesley says. "I know that that kind of question has been raised of 'The Color Purple' and questions have even been raised about Adolph Caesar's performance of Sgt. Waters in 'Soldier's Story.' There is something more important to be dealt with."
Do not talk movie controversy or protest to Oprah Winfrey.
"Where were people when 'Shaft' was out, when 'Superfly,' and there were all these black exploitation movies, where were they then? The book's been out 40 years, and you can't complain about the treatment of black men, because it was written by a black man."
"The point of this movie," says the Chicago talk-show host, "is supposed to help us understand that we breed our own killers . . . " She stops herself. "This is 1986, and I don't buy that. My cry to students -- I do five or six speaking engagements a week -- is that life may not have handed you all you wanted it to, but it is your responsibility to make a difference. We have the power to make a difference."
"In a certain sense," says director Freedman, commenting on the movie's relevance for today, "there's still a lot of racism in our society. I remember I had a friend in college, the University of Pennsylvania, who is today a prominent novelist. He's black, and at that time there were very few blacks in college in the '60s. And I remember reading something where he was talking about himself and his place in society, and how he felt being a stranger in a white world. And if that's true of a guy who's a Rhodes scholar, it's certainly true of a fellow with no education."
Freedman said he was talking about John Wideman, whose recent book "Brothers and Keepers" told his own story and that of his brother Robby, who is serving a life sentence for murder.
When Victor Love, both of whose parents have master's degrees, first read "Native Son," he said he did not sympathize with or even understand Bigger Thomas. "But now that I'm playing him, I understand him totally. I understand his frustration, his fear . . ."
"His anger," prompts Winfrey.
"And the fact that he has a dream," says Love. "It's symbolized . . . when an airplane flies over, and he says, 'I wish I could do that. I could do that if they'd give me a chance.' Those kinds of things you and I take for granted, he can't do . . .
"Yes, it has a lot of relevance today. It's still happening. On street corners in poor areas across the country -- not just black; white, Hispanic, poor places -- Bigger Thomases run rampant."