Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Recently I had recommended to me the 1936 film THE GREEN PASTURES. I was told that it was an historical curiosity and one of the few all black cast movies from the period to get a DVD release. The film moves the tales of the Old Testament from the Tigris and Euphrates valley and Egypt to the Deep South visualizing them in the imaginations of rural black children. Sitting in Sunday school and coaxed by their pastor to ask questions about what they’ve learned the young kids imagine the creation of Earth, Adam & Eve, Noah’s ark and the Exodus from Pharaoh’s slavery in simple, childlike terms.

I found the film fascinating and bizarre in almost equal measure. It would take a much savvier writer than I to properly address the historical significance of this movie. But I can honestly say I was unsure if I should be insulted by its often degrading view of black people or stunned that the film was made at all. Make no mistake- the movie is insanely offensive in its portrayal of rural southern blacks. The Louisiana patios they speak in is nearly incomprehensible at times with every single character seemingly clueless about things as simple subject and verb agreement. When the character of the Lord God himself speaks as if addressing a pool hall after a hard night of drinking you know you’re in the presence of mighty, entrenched racism. Not to mention that HE is referred to as 'Da Lawd' by everyone with that spelling in the end credits as well!

Smartly Warner Brothers makes no bones about the film being racist. In an onscreen card before the film begins they admit the film is a product of its times and certainly does not represent their view of African-Americans today. But their statement that to ignore the past racist attitudes is to try to pretend they did not exist- which would be wrong. I think this may be the best way to acknowledge the very thorny issue of watching deeply racist films that painfully mirror the attitudes of the times in which they were created. To hide them from view is to sanitize the past but often they can inflame still seething anger over wrongs on both sides. I agree that it’s a bad idea to try to forget the stereotypical racial views of past decades and I’m thrilled to be able to see any films made in the 1930s as I know how many of them are gone. But part of me wonders if this isn’t Warner’s having its cake and eating it as well. After all- they’re making money off this old property just as they did when it was originally made. Are there good intentions behind this DVD release or just a smart bit of profiteering? And am I leaning towards praising them because I’d like to see more such movies released from their vaults? After all SONG OF THE SOUTH is still one of the most requested movies unavailable on video. Disney refuses to release it out of fear of criticism for its supposed racist portrayal of southern blacks. Would a short preface like the one seen here be enough to shield Disney from charges of racism?

In the final analysis I don’t think I care. I enjoyed THE GREEN PASTURES and I think that most people of any race would be able to see it for what it is- a reflection of the mind-set of the times. Black people have come a long way in the past 70 years in the United States and seeing this curious film might point out a few things (both good and bad) to people of all races. In a way it might be good to show people this or other such bits of movie history to expose them to the kind of attitude on display. If nothing else it would spark some discussion on the subject beyond the reactionary standard of the day.

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