Southern Movie #9: “Green Pastures”

After writing about the 1939 film “Way Down South” two months ago, I couldn’t resist also writing about 1936’s “The Green Pastures” for some of the same reasons. Through a multi-leveled frame narrative, this black-and-white Depression-era film oversimplifies and mistranslates the major stories of the Old Testament into an old-time Southern black vernacular, carrying it to the viewer through two separate outer frames: one involving an old black Sunday school teacher sharing his folksy wisdom with a group of young children, and the other portraying Heaven as an idyllic country fish-fry complete with ten-cent cigars and De Lawd presiding as a kindly country gentleman.

By removing the Old Testament from its ancient cultural roots and transplanting it into the rural farming culture of the Deep South, we see Adam and Eve, Cain and Noah, the patriarchs, even the archangel Gabriel as somewhat simple-minded creatures facing worldly problems. When De Lawd looks over a misty cliff from the Pearly Gates, He first sees the tremendous potential of a new Creation, but quickly finds Mankind to be disobedient, quarrelsome, and problematic. We meet Adam, standing in his work dungarees and plaid shirt, wondrous and lonely, until Eve arrives in her simple housewife’s dress. Similar Southern farming connotations are added to the often-turbulent stories of the Old Testament.

After the initial defiance of first Adam and Eve and then Cain, De Lawd returns to Earth to find a crass world full of carousing, drinking and raucous laughter. Among these careless sinners, there is Noah, a simple country preacher who does not at first recognize the De Lawd. When told that he must build his ark, Noah re-imagines his simple shack as a boat, filing the animals two-by-two into the tiny structure, each animal labeled with signage for good measure. After the Flood, of course, the cleansed world— well, it turns right back sour again. And by the end of the film, De Lawd is left with only one option: sending a savior.

In the culturally specific narrative of “The Green Pastures,” all of Creation is black: De Lawd, the people in Heaven, the prophets, the patriarchs, the angels. Though the raw naivete of the representations in “Green Pastures” could be seen as charming, with historical hindsight, for me the problem came with knowing that it was created by a white playwright, Marc Connelly, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1930 for the Broadway play that preceded the film. Sure, maybe a certain measure of truth was there – about how early twentieth-century blacks thought or lived – but there is also something questionable about having ignorance and backwardness to be quaint.

As a white person watching “Green Pastures” in 2015, it’s hard not to feel the racism. The movie had come on AMC a few months back, and intrigued both by the subject and by Robert Osborne’s explanations of Rex Ingram‘s film history, I gave it a look. Though not as harshly racist as “Birth of a Nation,” the condescension toward black culture is apparent.

On the brighter side, “The Green Pastures” may have constituted one of those tenuous steps forward for film depictions of African Americans in the South. In the introduction to Thomas Cripps’ edition of “The Green Pastures” for University of Wisconsin’s Screenplay Series, we read:

For white Americans, the increasingly visible evidence of the breadth and variety of black culture began to give the lie to generation of invidious stereotypes that had caricatured Negroes in advertising, performing arts, popular fiction, doggerel, and jokes. Coincident with the migration of southern blacks to northern cities, Hollywood movies began to redirect their depictions of blacks on the screen from abject slaveys and toadies toward sentimental tributes to such presumed “good Negro” virtues as loyalty and fortitude in the face of hard times.

The introduction goes on to put “The Green Pastures” in context by cataloging early twentieth-century plays and films with African American subject matter, e.g. Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings. I’m no expert on black drama and film, so I’ll yield to the expert here. (Though I must say that I do intend to search out one film he mentions in his introduction: an early talkie called “Hearts in Dixie” from 1929, which features in its lead role a man named Steppin Fetchit.)

As for me, I guess I am left to think about it this way: Is “The Green Pastures” outdated? Yes. Is it offensive? Possibly. Is it important? Definitely.

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