Monday, July 23, 2012

Green Pastures, The (1936)

Warner Bros.
Director: Marc Connelly, William Keighley
Starring: Rex Ingram

In the mid 1930s racial stereotypes were a rather unfortunately normal archetype in many American films, several times over exaggerating simple aspects of a race to a point of ridiculous behavior or over exaggerated features. The Green Pastures is a feature film with an all African American cast that is full of what some may call belittling aspects, but with this movie paints a picture that was meant to instruct tolerance and understanding that not all people see the world or it’s teaching the same way, based on their background. It makes for a very interesting feature of an all-black cast recreating scenes from the Bible with a southern twist. Filled with political incorrectness, but with that creates its own unique charm that, that though offensive to many, manifests an idea of how another race people (it does not necessarily have to be African American) looks at the world and the teachings of Bible when compared to the traditional sense of such stories.

The Green Pastures is a picture recreating Old Testament stories from the Bible with an all-black cast, set to the backdrop of a African American Deep South culture during the earlier decades of the 20th century. Book ended by the preaching of a Sunday school teacher to a group of children (for the sake of recreating the film most accurately, and not to demean any political incorrectness, the word used is “chillun”). The film re-enacts the most common stories of the Bible from the mindset of a simple black child and what he/she may know of the world they grew up in. The retelling of the Bible events centers of the struggles of God, known as “De Lawd” (Rex Ingram), as he emotionally deals with his creation of earth. De Lawd is seen to create the world on a whim at a heavenly fish fry (keep in mind the very southern aspect here) and how his new creation of man disappoints him continuously. A deeply frustrated God becomes upset with his men, punishing and destroying many men due to frustration. From the tales of Cain and Adel, to the flood sparring Noah, to the Exodus, and so forth Da Lawd becomes seen as a vengeful and emotionally distraught person. But it takes the faith of men after he shuns them to in return teach De Lawd of mercy, softening his heart from the God of the vengeful Old Testament to the merciful God of the New Testament, where the film concludes.

The film is an interesting array of ideas all mashed together in a package that can be rather difficult for many to watch, depending on their background. The first thing one must get past is the political incorrectness. The picture is full of stereotypes of Deep South blacks. Here their accents and their attributes are all overdone to the point of silliness. These are very problematic for many to watch as the stereotype was created out of racism. I this film the stereotype was created to bridge the message of a different culture to attempt to help understand how a different people other than the predominately white American culture would see the very same biblical lessons taught to many across the nation. It depicts a mind of a lesser educated, less-worldly, less-culture mind. As Anglo-Saxons turned Bible characters into white men in all there illustrations for centuries and therefore in their minds, it would become difficult for many to manifest any other imagery of these people. Here they are made simple black folk for a two-fold reason, one being that these characters are not white, angelic men as canonized in many minds, and secondly to manifest how other cultures’ perceptions are different from yours. That is the root of the film in my humble opinion.

Producing a Hollywood feature at that time with an all-black cast seems like a gamble for major movie studio Warner Bros. Truth is The Green Pastures had already been a successful Broadway play penned and directed by Marc Connelly, winning him a Pulitzer Prize. He would be brought to direct a film version allowing for special effects that could not be seen on Broadway and allowing for certain story points to come across even clearer that the stage could not provide. For the picture Connelly would be aided by Warner Bros. director William Keighley, who would help bring the vision to the screen in a manner that would please audiences. The result still makes for a rather simple movie. Obviously shot completely on a sound stages, the production value can still be seen as honorable at times, despite some cheep costuming. Perhaps the best effects  in the film, outside clouds and a staff that turns to a snake, is that of a split screen where Rex Ingram plays two characters that converse with each other, something impossible on a stage.

The cast of the picture would be small and humble. With moments of perhaps a couple dozen extras dressed as angels in Southern clothing or general crowds, the primary roles are played by a select few, some of whom play multiple parts. Rex Ingram is the most prevalent, playing primarily God, as well as Adam (the man created in his own image), and a small prophet named Hezdrel who in turns teaches God a lesson in love and mercy. Ingram was an African American actor of a highly educated background who was literally discovered on the streets. His booming voice and stage presence would make him a fine man to fix as the most powerful character in the film. What is most interesting about his role as Da Lawd is that it is God and not man that has the character arch and learns the most from actions. Ingram would be the most notable actor in all the cast for his prominent placement and he would have the greatest career of all the actors. Oscar Polk would play Gabriel, God’s right hand angel, but his life would be tragically cut short due to an auto accident. Eddie Anderson would play the most notable human character of Noah. Anderson’s career would have him appear in many films, but would be most noted for his work as Jack Benny’s side character and chauffeur in many productions.

Rex Ingram as "Da Lawd" in heaven (inspired by the Deep South), surrounded by angels.
On the religious angle, of course the film takes creative freedom with the telling of the stories, putting the bible characters in a setting of early 20th Southern United States, but with the names remaining the biblical context that inspired them. The men wore jazz era suits and enjoyed simple southern joys, many that would be considered stereotypes. All this could anger heavily religious individuals, but what is important is the heart of the story, not the exact details. In everything one can break down a biblical story and learn something new on any given day, based on where they are physically and emotionally at the time. This simply provides a new angle, and was not meant to offend, but rather educate and inspire.

Political incorrectness was not something thought of at the time The Green Pastures was originally released. Times have changes and we hope people have changed as well to be less ignorant of such things. With that said it does not mean we as a culture should throw away such politically incorrect productions away, shunning their ignorance, or acting as if offensive works never were created (i.e. Walt Disney’s Song of the South). Contemporary audiences are given the opportunity to attempt to understand the context in which the film was produced and allow it to be enjoyed, as well as create conversations if needed to understand where society was, is, and will go from here. Therefore this feature should be allowed to be enjoyed by any in its fullness for what, in context, the film was meant to be.

It is for films like The Green Pastures that allow us to see where we have come from and the progress yet to come. As a film, it is a rather simple picture with a unique heart that will be shunned by audiences with lower tolerances to racism and religion, making the film not for all. But for those that have an open mind and an earnest attention to understanding our culture and history, as well as the sociological considerations, this is definitely an interesting find.

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