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The Problem of the Hero

Two playwrights disagree on a scene, but this has as much to say about their backgrounds as it does their writing acumen; American drama set 80 years ago highlights some very familiar facets of racism and misogyny

This is the story of two writers. The first, Paul Green (David zum Brunnen), is a Pulitzer Prize winner who enjoys many of the privileges of a white man. The other one is Richard Wright (J. Mardrice Henderson), a black artist desperately trying to get his voice heard in the United States of the 1940s. The pair are developing a stage treatment of Wright’s Native Son, but their backgrounds and contrasting philosophies quickly come to the forefront as they try to piece together a particularly delicate scene. What starts off as a friendly discussion about narrative outcomes quickly spirals into a discussion about what the US is to them.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Green is the more patriotic of the duo (“You owe this country as much as it owes you,” he highlights to Wright), but it’s easy to pay tribute to a country that allows you to wine and dine as you best see fit. Wright experiences a very different country: he has to wait in a hotel lobby for Green, despite being his artistic peer, and endures snide remarks from stewards who discredit his artistry due to his race. In one almost tantric opening address, Wright disavows the importance of his country’s leaders: “The slave owner and the capitalist have nothing to teach me”. Green, who has enjoyed a prosperous career as a writer, suggests that his comrade should be happy with his success; Wright reconciles success with the bigotry he must face.

The Problem of the Hero ripples with energy, many of them stemming from the zingers in the script. “This country was founded on the idea of freedom,” Green tells his partner. “But not the practice, ” Wright wistfully replies. The two leads sparring partners, and they speak admirably contrasting truths during the course of the film (Mardice Henderson’s lugubrious theorist is particularly compelling to watch). Barely offscreen for a moment, the two men walk the audience through a country’s history, deviating from such lofty topics as economy and theatre, to more conventional subjects as hopes and aspirations.

In many ways, this relationship mirrors that of Frost and Nixon, although the camaraderie is noticeably friendlier here than it was between the reporter and the President in the Ron Howard film. Stylistically, director Shaun Dozier keeps things fairly basic: The movie is set almost entirely indoors, much of it shot in the theatre where Native Son is going to premiere. As it stands, the camera keeps things static, presenting itself as a mirror into the proceedings; there are very few wide angle shots, or Dutch angles. The holistic method allows the audience to focus in on the actors, who are always the centre of attention.

There’s a third remarkable performance, that of Charlie Cannon who plays Orson Welles. It’s not a large role – it’s more of a cameo, than anything – but it does show the lengths the director would go to make his actors as uncomfortable as possible. Cannon captures Welles’ smugness, as well as his ruthless ambition to realise every scene with authenticity and fire. But there is a palpable sense of presumption to the director: Welles nearly suffocates one of his actresses by putting a pillow over her face. Welles’s casual misogyny is nearly as upsetting as the racism Green experiences on a daily basis, suggesting that there were other areas the US needed to work on in its desire to make the country a welcoming place for everyone. What’s scary is that many of the problems that arise in The Problem of the Hero happen to be the very same people face 80 years later.

The Problem of the Hero showed at the San Francisco IndieFest, the Harlem and also at the Naples International Film Festival.

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