Both films of the powerful Richard Wright novel are excellent, says John Perkins, Reference Services Librarian at Mercer University School of Law.
Bigger Thomas, an African American from an impoverished neighborhood, is employed by a prosperous white family in 1940's Chicago. (In the 1986 version, Oprah Winfrey plays his mother). As a chauffeur, he is directed by the father of the family to drive Mary (Elizabeth McGovern), the daughter, to her university. Instead, Mary decides to pick up her socialist boyfriend, Jan (Matt Dillon), and to go out drinking and partying. Jan and Mary venture into a black neighborhood with Bigger to be entertained at Ernie's, a black nightclub. Mary gets stumbling drunk and Bigger must get her to her bedroom without being detected. Mary's mother, who is blind, enters the room and Bigger panics at the thought of being caught with a white woman. He accidentally kills Mary by placing a pillow over her head to keep her quiet. Still frightened, Bigger disposes of the body in the furnace, possibly because he feels he would not get a fair trial for the accidental death of a white woman. Jan is wanted by the police for Mary's murder and Bigger plays a role in the accusations against him.
Bigger Thomas is defended by a communist lawyer, Max, who thinks Bigger is a scapegoat. In the 1986 film, as in the book, the victim's boyfriend, Jan, works for Max.
Directed by Martin Ritt, based on the play by Tom Topor, this film stars Barbra Streisand as a call girl accused of murder, who fights for the right to stand trial rather than be declared mentally incompetent. A strong cast includes Richard Dreyfuss as her attorney, Maureen Stapleton, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach. Dreyfuss has a memorable line after Streisand fires her first lawyer: "You had good. Now you've got me."
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