Though his only hope for salvation depends on a God who is downright dim, not just merciful, Judge Bill Gibron still celebrates this classic controversial film.
It's time to "git" your minds fixed.
Faith is a funny thing. Religion has been called the opiate of the masses and the greatest threat to world peace since the atomic bomb. It has also been praised by fundamentalists, denounced by non-believers, and found its way into almost all facets of society—whether it should be there or not. There is no denying the power that prayer and religion's moral message has on people. They will clean up their act, renounce their wicked ways, and seek enlightenment toward a new path, all in the name of God and his various human—and ethereal—incarnations. From the arcane elements of the Catholic Mass to the gospel throwdown of a Southern Baptist choir, humans are hitched to their faith in ways both positive and puzzlingly precarious.
Though it seems like a slam on every person of color between Kentucky and the Mississippi Delta, The Green Pastures is, primarily, a celebration of conviction. Certainly it stains its sentiments with totally unsympathetic depictions of rural blacks in a kind of quasi-serene antebellum South, but there is more here than mere race-baiting. Aside from all the Hollywood hokum about mammies and pappies, beyond the brazen treatment of individuals of color as lower-class citizens, the concept of faith is fully formed and flowering here. It can be occasionally hard to see, yet this movie is one of the most emotional and beautiful mediations on the meaning of religion ever put on film. Too bad its Caucasian creators couldn't perceive the people depicted as the plain-old ordinary human beings that they were.
Facts of the Case
In a small rural church just outside New Orleans, Mr. Deshee (George Reed, Swanee River) 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 (Rex Ingram, The Thief of Baghdad), bored during one of Heaven's daily fish fries, brings too much "firmament" to the celebration and decides to drain the rest off onto a newly-formed planet he created. He then adds Adam and Eve, thus The Bible is born. As the lesson moves along, Mr. Deshee addresses the parables of Cain and Abel, describing how Noah (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, The Jack Benny Program) became the captain of the Ark and how Moses (Frank H. Wilson, The Emperor Jones) 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 deity. With the amiable assistance of Gabriel (Oscar Polk, Gone with the Wind), His right-hand man and Archangel, this revelation will help all of God's children find The Green Pastures of the promised land.
The Green Pastures is a misunderstood movie, but not like Song of the South is misunderstood. Disney's dilemma with that 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, seen as a subservient jester for the Caucasian children under his charge. No such race distinction exists in The Green Pastures, at least, not outwardly. This is a fantasy world composed completely of black people—not a white face or other ethnicity to be found. Within these particular parameters, the story is told. God is black. All His angels are black. All biblical characters are black, and even the individuals spinning the yarn are black. Seeing this, some could complain that such a set-up is as misguided and mixed up as the "all-white" worlds seen in other cinematic settings, but the problem with The Green Pastures is an obvious issue that you can't see until you look at the credits. While color 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.
Therefore it can be argued (quite successfully, mind you) that The Green Pastures is a racist film. Some could even go so far as to brand it offensive and outrageous. Throughout the course of its 90-minute running time, we see all manner of awkward African-American archetypes, from shiftless gamblers to simple-minded bumpkins. This is a story of "Negroes" (according to the language used) 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 the 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 in this portrayal. But there is also a strong undercurrent of grace and devotion that constantly countermands the cruelty. It delivers the film and its prejudicial facets out of the realm of repugnance into a region both sublime and subjective.
Still, one has to get past a pretty big pile of pre-Civil Rights ridiculousness to find the core of symbolic sentiment at the heart of The Green Pastures. The problems are practically inherent in its creation. The movie is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by a white man, Marc Connelly, who in turn took his inspiration from a typically intolerant piece of Southern folklore, Ol' Man Adam and His Chillin', by plantation owner's son Roark Bradford. Though the 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. Master is nowhere to be found here, but poverty still appears to be prevalent. 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 so simplistic as to be almost meaningless—almost. Indeed, what happens during the course of this film is so astounding, so mindbogglingly brilliant, 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 and the tints terribly inappropriate, 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. Instead of being a horrible hate crime or a complete cultural slap in the face, 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, all-simple Southern cast is necessary to remove the automatic antagonism that the concept of religion carries. 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 on their own internal images 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 avoids this problem. Therefore, we have 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 and the reverential) 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. 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, Ingram and Polk 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. 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. 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, 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 corrupts its "yessa massa" mentality.
But the greatest achievement of this film is its ability to fully explain faith. Such an ephemeral, cosmic concept would take philosophers and scholars volumes to explain and illustrate, and yet The Green Pastures does it simply and serenely. It uses the innocence of its idle idiots to strip away anything remotely cynical or brash. Then it takes the internal elements of belief 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 he believes anyway.
Indeed, The Green Pastures makes very clear the connection between God and His people, a true physical connection 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 than any made before or since. 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. It suggests that there is a participatory element to everlasting life that few probably consider when their calling on their Christianity for support.
This is why The Green Pastures is an important film. All racist stereotyping and culturally insensitive stigmatizing aside, it is one of the few movies that makes God a serious, substantive facet of individual existence. All the fish-fry foolishness and cotton-pickin' prejudice don't detract from what is a powerful and profound message about man and the soundness of his soul. When Mr. Deshee tells his Sunday School class that they have to "git" their minds right, he isn't arguing for intelligence, or some manner of destructive 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 sanctified. Though many will looks at its message and only see the muddled, almost mean-spirited messenger, The Green Pastures is much more than just a hateful Hollywood minstrel show. Bigotry does blot out what this movie is moving toward. Indeed, eyes that see through such hostile histrionics will be rewarded with a terrific, touching film.
Celebrating its 70th year in existence in 2006, one marvels at the transfer offered up by Warner Brothers. The 1.33:1 monochrome image is strong—both aesthetically pleasing and technically sound. Sure, there are scratches and scrapes, dirt that can be distracting and moments of softness and grain that give away the film's age, but the black and white cinematography still stands out. Because it was filmed on sets (though the directors had wanted to shoot on location), the contrasts are crisp and many of the scenes look nearly brand-new. Though it is not perfect by any stretch of the visual imagination, this version of The Green Pastures still looks pretty good. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Mono is acceptable, albeit tinny, flat, and failing to give the divine gospel music used throughout enough spatial ambience. Still, all the dialogue is discernible and the underscoring is subtle and sonorous.
As for bonus features, Warners does a very smart thing and allows three individuals of diverse ethnic perspectives to step up and offer a full-length audio commentary on the film. Each does indeed try to describe/deconstruct the movie. Actor LeVar Burton is disturbed by some of what he sees, but is able to look around much of it to describe the emotions and memories the movie evokes. Black culture scholars Herb Boyd and Ed Guerrero, on the other hand, are ready to take the movie to task, and spend the first half pointing out every politically incorrect aspect of the production. Amazingly enough, though, about halfway through, they start to joke around and welcome the performances and the message. They never apologize for the film, but try to weigh the positives (all-black cast) against the obvious negatives (all-white crew). Individuals looking for modern insight into a very flawed old-fashioned film will love this discussion. It can get high-minded and overly moralistic at times, but all three men do a good job of defending ideas while decrying the manner in which they were presented.
To see more examples of Hollywood's half-assed idea of race-based hilarity, look no further than the two vintage musical shorts offered. "Rufus Jones for President" is far more insensitive than anything in The Green Pastures. While it features the frenzied fun of little 8-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. at his singing and tap dancing best, there are just too many watermelon and fried chicken jokes. The same can be said for "An All Colored Vaudeville Show." Any chance to see the astounding Nicholas Brothers in action (and Ethel Waters, who sparkles in Rufus Jones) is reason enough to celebrate, but the surrounding shtick, including more stereotyped stupidity, stains the experience.
Putting a face to faith is never easy. When Mel Gibson did it with his Passion of the Christ, there was nothing but blood, sweat, and fears. After his sublime King of Kings, Cecil B. DeMille turned his Bible epics into superstar experiences in stunt casting. The Green Pastures has a similar gimmick going for it—the rural black man and woman as conduit to pure spirit—but unlike other examples where the novelty wears off, leaving behind an empty shell, there is a lot of literal soul in this film. What Marc Connelly captured in his righteous revision of these old plantation tales was the very essence of belief—why individuals need God and why humanity is so important to a Supreme Being. Certainly the sentiment could be stated in a way more iconic than idiotic, and there is no need for the outright racism that permeates many of the movie's finer moments, but no other film, before or since, captured the special spirituality of religious devotion as much as this one. Forgive the film its obvious trespasses and be prepared to show how sinless you are before casting the first critical stone. The Green Pastures is problematic in the way that prejudice provides. But it is a celebration, not a condemnation. Anyone who bothers to look beyond the surface will surely recognize it.
Not guilty. While this court will not address issues of race and realism, The Green Pastures is still found to be a classic of faith-based filmmaking, and is therefore free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Full-length Audio Commentary by actor LeVar Burton, and Black Cultural Scholars Herb Boyd and Ed Guerrero
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