Monday, March 7, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #8 - Green Pastures (1936, dir. Mark Connelly/William Keighley)

"God appears in many forms to those who believe in Him.  Thousands of Negros in the Deep South visualize God and Heaven in terms of people and things they know in their everyday life.  The Green Pastures is an attempt to portray that humble, reverent conception."

This written "Foreward," shown immediately before the credits, sets the scene for The Green Pastures.  Several children in the Deep South walk to their Sunday school lesson in the company of the teacher, where he promises a lesson "straight from Genesis."  However, the lesson turns from the written word to the various questions the children have - in particular, what things were like before there was an Earth.  (My questions during Sunday school were significantly less heady.)  As the preacher and kids begin suggesting that maybe it was "good times" for God and the angels, they begin describing these "good times" in reference to what their idea of good times involve - fish fries, "boil'd custard," and ten cent cigars "for the adults."

Zoom to a child's face in wonderment, zoom out of focus, cue the gospel choir.  And the movie proper begins - a series of vignettes designed to attempt to portray how Biblical characters and stories might be envisioned by rural African-American children.  And, as the set-up suggests, this extends not just to the use of African-Americans in the roles of the biblical characters, but in (then) contemporary dress, speech patterns and behaviors for all the characters, as well.

(Warner Brothers puts a disclaimer at the outset of the DVD, stating that although these mannerisms and ways of speaking may have been common in the past, that WB certainly doesn't think that's what African-Americans are all about now.  I'd like to think movie companies would feel us sufficiently intelligent to not come to such a realization, but there you be.)

The fact that this movie was made at all, let alone well, is something of a miracle.  The entire cast and crew for the feature was African-American, and in the mid-30s, there can't have been that many who had a lot of professional film-making experience.  Despite this fact, this film is anything but an amateur production.  If anything in the film seems a bit hokey or amateurish, it's the same sort of things that you might see in any Hollywood production from the same time period.  After a couple of scenes, I found myself slipping into the spirit of the film, enjoying seeing these "well-known characters" in a new light.  The accents were occasionally thick enough (and the slang occasionally obscure enough) that I did better with the closed-captioning feature turned on, but I certainly didn't find this any sort of handicap.  Although not a Christian nor a student of African-American studies, I came away from this feature feeling as though I really did see something special and unique.  My only real complaint - the excellent gospel music by the Hall Johnson Choir isn't available on CD.  Presumably this just means I'll end up watching the movie more often.  There certainly are worse fates.

- Alf

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