Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Green Pastures

The Green Pastures (1936) is based on the 1930 Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same title by Marc Connelly, which itself is adapted from Roark Bradford's Ol' Man Adam and His Chillun (1928), a series of Bible stories told from an unlettered African American viewpoint. Connelly and William Keighley co-directed the film. From the 1936 perspective, the film was intended to be appreciative and sympathetic to African American culture. But it achieves sympathy at the cost of paternalism, condescension, and racial stereotypes. Undoubtedly Connelly thought he was presenting an authentic portrait of African Americans and their religion. What he was really doing was portraying a white man's view of African American religion—how whites liked to think that African Americans conceived of their religion. Although there may be elements of truth in the film—children in particular would have responded to the film's images of African American angels flying around in heaven (the Green Pastures), singing, playing chase, fishing, having picnics—as a whole it is a well intended but misinformed and misguided effort.

Despite its pious subject, one purpose of Green Pastures is comedy—to elicit the laughter of a mainly white audience in response to images of African Americans dressed as angels cavorting in heaven and acting out Bible stories.

The Green Pastures was the first major motion picture with an all-black cast. Rex Ingram portrays "de Lawd," with Oscar Polk as Gabriel and Eddie Anderson as Noah. The film shows a Sunday school teacher explaining God and the Bible to a group of young children. He describes "de Lawd" as someone vaguely resembling Dr. Du Bois—is this W. E. B. Du Bois? The teacher's talk with the children and their rapt faces segues into a series of scenes portraying black angels in heaven. When "de Lawd" arrives on the scene, he complains that the pudding lacks something of substance and decides that it doesn't have enough "firmament," which he thereby creates. A sequence of scenes shows the creation of the earth, of Adam and Eve, the story of Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood (one of the central scenes in the film), and the fall of Babylon, after which de Lawd decides not to try to help the human race anymore and retreats to heaven.

The portrait of God in this film is deeply humanistic and anthropomorphic. De Lawd is shown agonizing over the sins and tribulations of the human race. He is constantly disappointed at how humans manage to sin after he intervenes to help them or to clean things up. Even after he retreats to heaven, he is shown suffering over his decision, struggling to discover a way to help the human race without violating his decision. This leads him to an understanding of mercy, suffering, and finally the meaning of faith. The crucial moment comes when de Lawd realizes that though he may have lost faith in mankind, mankind (some of them at least) have kept their faith in him. With these discoveries de Lawd decides to send Christ to the earth as his representative, though this decision is only indirectly implied.

Much of this film is quite watchable. It has its charms. Ingram in particular as de Lawd is impressive. The excellent traditional spirituals sung by the Hall Johnson Choir are used throughout the film to highlight and accompany the Biblical dramatizations. The best scenes are the earliest ones, and as the film moves past the creation of Adam and Eve towards Noah and the flood and the fall of Babylon it becomes too literal and begins to drag.

The Green Pastures exemplifies a view of African Americans that was pervasive in the 1930s, not merely in the South but throughout much of America—a view that regarded them as pious, simple, and primitive—as the bearers of a folk and racial tradition that merited preservation mainly as a form of racial local color.

No comments: