The Green Pastures (1936) is a misunderstood movie, but not like Song of the South (1946) is misunderstood. Disney’s dilemma with its otherwise entertaining film is that, no matter how personable or potent Uncle Remus is as a character, he is still under the charge of a segregated South, and seen as no more than a subservient jester for the Caucasian children in his charge.
No such racist depiction exists in The Green Pastures, at least, not outwardly. And yet those who have written on the subject find this movie to be a hotbed of controversy and concern. In an essay titled “Thank God for Uncle Tom”, Dr. G. S. Morris of the University of Georgia writes that, as only one of six all-black films made during the Hollywood studio era, The Green Pastures provides proof of its author’s “unconscious racism”. He argues that, as a fantasy world composed completely of African Americans—not a white face or other ethnicity to be found—writer Marc Connelly manufactures some rather peculiar parameters. There is no Devil. Parts of the Bible are passed by. God is black. All His angels are black. All biblical characters are black, and even the individuals spinning the yarn are black.
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To understand what The Green Pastures tries to accomplish, one needs to look at the narrative offered. The film starts out in a small rural church just outside New Orleans. There, Mr. Deshee teaches the local youngsters about The Bible. As he answers their questions and directs their studies, we see a visualization of the creation of the Earth. De Lawd, bored during one of Heaven’s daily fish fries, brings too much “firmament” (a term with a double meaning—it could signify “the hand of God” as well as “home brew”) to the celebration and decides to drain the rest off onto a newly-formed planet he created. He then adds Adam and Eve. As the lesson moves along, Mr. Deshee addresses the parables of Cain and Abel, describing how Noah became the captain of the Ark and how Moses delivered his people from bondage.
Eventually, De Lawd grows tired of Earth’s wicked ways and renounces the place and all who inhabit it. It takes the prayers of Hezdrel, determined warrior against King Herod, to bring perspective to De Lawd’s plight. Apparently, faith and mercy do mean something to this venerable and very merciful deity. With the amiable assistance of Gabriel, His right-hand man and Archangel, this revelation will help all of God’s children find the so-called Green Pastures of the promised land.
Some have complained that such a racially-specific set-up is as misguided and mixed up as the “all-white” worlds seen in other cinematic settings of the time. Hollywood was known to treat society as a place where people of color were only seen as servants, laborers, or in the worse case scenarios, criminals. But one of the biggest problems with The Green Pastures is an obvious issue that you can’t see until you look at the credits. It’s a fact that Dr. Morris addresses, as well. While “minorities” may be plastered all over the silver screen, not a single individual of African American persuasion stands behind the camera to make the creative decisions.
Such a revelation does create a big pile of pre-Civil Rights preposterousness to overcome when trying to find the core of symbolic sentiment at the heart of The Green Pastures. The movie is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by a white man, Marc Connelly. Considered by Dr. Morris, as well as writers Douglas Bogle and Thomas Cripps, as a well-intentioned but poorly misguided “Northern Liberal”, Connelly took his inspiration from a typically intolerant piece of Southern folklore, Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillin’, written by plantation owner’s son Roark Bradford. Though Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillin’‘s message is based in belief, in the power of good and the acceptance of God as the guiding force of the universe, the storyline is mired in fish fries, 10-cent cigars and cruelly clichéd depictions of easy-going, borderline-retarded rubes hemming and hawing their way through some sour cornpone hogwash.
Connelly did make some changes when addressing Bradford’s antebellum baloney. God was depicted as a white Southern Colonel, the better to explore the master/slave relationship within the Heavenly dynamic. In other cases, Connelly toned down the horrific stereotyping employed. Yet he kept the main ideas, and with them, their racist foundation. In Bogle’s cinematic history lesson, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, he describes the characters in The Green Pastures as the liveliest collection of agreeable toms, uncle remuses, aunt jemimas, and corn-patch pickaninnies ever assembled.” Even worse, throughout the course of its 90-minute running time, we see all manner of awkward archetypes, from shiftless gamblers to simple-minded bumpkins.
This is a story of “Negroes” (according to the language used in the script), and ebonics-esque phraseology permeates all the dialogue. From the simplest sinner to the big boss man himself, De Lawd, a lazy linguistic aura fills the screen with troubling, uncomfortable conversation. Similar in style to the Uncle Remus stories that try to paint life lessons and parables into culturally incorrect race comedy, one does get a sense of shameful mockery in many of this movie’s minor moments.
Yet this is part of the tightrope that the film wants to walk. Since it was made by Hollywood, notorious for its mesegenistic view of black performers, one can read all manner of sinister significance by bigoted studio chiefs in this portrayal. But there is also a strong undercurrent of beauty and devotion that constantly countermands the ethnic intolerance. It’s a piety that Dr. Morris dismisses as being simplistic and theologically incomplete. But in the context of this film alone, it delivers the prejudicial facets out of the realm of repugnance into a region both sublime and wholly subjective.
Connelly, for all his flaws, made sure that Master is nowhere to be found here. No mention is made of the War Between the States or the stultifying segregation policies that plagued people of color until the late ‘60s (!). This is Jim Crow as a jolly good time, a snapshot of a world the way white supremacists would like to envision it; all the black people piled into one agricultural area, living in glorified lean-tos and going about their simple, underprivileged lives without a single criticism or complaint.
When viewed in this light only, The Green Pastures is full of grace / disgrace. Characters are carved out of sharecropper cartoons and dialogue is delivered in pigeon English embarrassment. Yet what happens during the course of this film is so astounding, so mind-bogglingly unreal, that you can practically forget all the intolerance and prejudice pouring off the screen. In the span of 90 amazing minutes, The Green Pastures performs a feat untold in most religious cinema: it actually explains and illustrates faith. It gives it a face and a feeling. It renders it real and imparts amazing emotion and devotion into it. Though the shading used may be scandalous, this is art—cinema as epic exploration of aesthetic goodness.
Critics love to toss out the truism of subject matter that transcends its telling to become something undeniably imaginative and inventive. This is exactly what happens with this film. Even Thomas Cripps agrees, stating that outside the troubling imagery, this film “rose above the common muck…and brought Black Southern folk religion to a wide and appreciative audience.” Instead of being a movie that feels like a slap in the face to America’s African Americans, The Green Pastures proves that, sometimes, situations must be complex and controversial in order for the pure spirit of an enterprise to show through.
What many of the narrow (and right) minded naysayers fail to see in this film is the fact that the all-black cast is necessary to remove the automatic antagonism that the concept of religion carries. Dr. Morris argues that such a choice takes away the complexities of theology, rendering God as compliant, compassionate, and completely approachable—in essence, boiling a subject down to its basics. This is important because belief is personal, buried deep within each individual. When you set up a Christ figure and provide him with all the Biblical plot points, people instantly draw from their own internal renderings of the story and sit back, ready to pick out the sacrilegious and sanctified. By using a purely fanciful setting—there is no place like this little New Orleans parish on the face of the Earth; not at the time of the movie’s making, and never in the history of the United States—the movie creates the unlikeliest of level playing fields.
We’re left with the perfect parameters for an allegory. All Marc Connelly has to do is make sure he keeps one foot in each aspect of the tale (the ridiculous—the sloppy language and depictions and the reverential—De Lawd’s powerful message) and he is sure to make his point. Skin color is not important; it’s the nature of what is being explored that stands out in one’s mind. True, the improper English and slack-jawed jiving is not impressive and is hurtful to those being illustrated. But that is purely the fault of the society, not the message of the movie.
Besides, the acting countermands almost all the offensive aura. Driving dignity into every line of sloppy dialogue, Rex Ingram (as God) and Oscar Polk (as Gabriel) make you believe they are instruments of divine glory. Each one gives off such an impressive feeling of depth and piety that even the dimwitted quips they are forced to speak come across as genial and judicious. De Lawd may speak in a slow, stilted manner, but the ideas behind the words are still taken from the Gospels. Ingram does triple duty here, playing De Lawd as well as Adam and Hezdrel. It’s a touch that adds subliminal support to the notion of God creating man in His image.
As for His instruments on Earth, Eddie Anderson is a stitch, imparting Noah with just enough wiseass warmth to make us believe his steadfast spiritual guidance. Indeed, things in this Bible icon’s household are more comedic than serious—especially when the townsfolk arrive to rib him over the Ark. The relatively unknown Frank Wilson makes Moses a truly reluctant prophet, asking all the questions and expressing all the doubts that anyone placed in his position would possess. This is not the Old Testament titan as a Charlton Heston hero in blackface. Moses is truer to his Biblical roots than standard portraits, a modest man asked to step up and confront forces with designs to destroy him. By keeping its classic characters simple and allowing wonderfully skilled performers to breath life into them, The Green Pastures constantly
But again, the greatest achievement of this film is its ability to fully explain faith. As Dr. Morris states, by removing all the intricacies of religion, by ‘simplifying’ the way in which God and Man interact, by taking away the rituals and revelations that make dogma distant, Connelly creates a basic belief that anyone can embrace. Such an ephemeral, cosmic concept usually takes philosophers and scholars volumes to clarify and illustrate, and yet The Green Pastures does it plainly and serenely. It uses the innocence of its idle characters to strip away anything remotely cynical or brash. Then it takes the internal elements of conviction and expresses them beautifully and elegantly.
When Noah initially fails to see God, he scoffs at the silly country preacher sitting across from him. But when he does recognize Him, his seriousness and sorrow are so incredibly moving that you can feel his conviction flowing through him. Similarly, Hezdrel has a conversation with a callous God about an upcoming battle. De Lawd tells him he no longer cares what happens to the human race, but that does not dismay this devout man. He smiles and says the he still believes in his guiding ‘Higher Power’, anyway.
Indeed, The Green Pastures makes very clear the connection between God and His people, a true physical connection of race and reality (no matter how bigoted) that goes beyond prayer and studied Sunday rituals. Though some fundamentalists would argue over this interpretation, the film follows a far more humanistic approach to religion. It argues that God is in man and vice versa, and how we see our Maker is partly based on how we want our Maker to see us. This reciprocal rationalization for belief is far more convincing than a doe-eyed dreamer arguing for his eventual redemption.
This is why The Green Pastures is an important film. It is one of the few movies that makes God a serious, substantive facet of individual existence. All the foolishness surround the excess of “firmament” and cotton-pickin’ prejudice don’t detract from what is a powerful and profound message about man and the sanctity of his soul. When Mr. Deshee tells his Sunday School class that they have to “git” their minds right, he isn’t arguing for rote learning, or some manner of unexamined devotion. No, he is telling them that they better recognize the nature of belief before they get too old—and too set in their ways—to find the inner strength to meet Heaven halfway. The sooner they recognize their obligation in the matter, the quicker they will see their soul saved and their life consecrated.
Though many will look at its message and only see the muddled, almost mean-spirited messenger behind the storyline, The Green Pastures is much more than just a hateful Hollywood minstrel show. Those who can see through such patronizing histrionics will be rewarded with a terrific, touching film.