"You gotta git your minds fixed," the rural preacher tells Sunday School children. And the best way to do that fixin' is from Old Testament stories narrated by the preacher, played by a black cast, backed by the joyful gospel sounds of the Hall Johnson Choir and based on Marc Connelly's folk-themed Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Rex Ingram portrays de Lawd, who has a 100,000 things to do before any human's next breath - like instructing Noah (Eddie Anderson); taking counsel with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; or teaching Moses tricks to dazzle Pharaoh. Get your mind fixed for The Green Pastures. It's a film of its time. But like all great art, it transcends it.
"Gangway for de Lawd God Jehovah!" Despite racial stereotypes and a naive, backward vision of "Negro Heaven," The Green Pastures
remains an important, controversial, and still-entertaining milestone in African American popular culture. Because this 1936 spiritual musical embraces all of the black stereotypes that were prevalent in its time, Warner Home Video has appropriately included a disclaimer regarding the political incorrectness of the film's then-common racial prejudices, stressing the importance of acknowledging these stereotypes as opposed to pretending they never existed. With this understanding, The Green Pastures
still endures as a classic American folk drama, based on Marc Connelly's Pulitzer Prize-wining Broadway production (suggested by Roark Bradford's southern sketches "Ol' Man Adam an' His Chillun"), in which several Old Testament stories are performed as they might be imagined by black Sunday-school child in the Depression-era South. It's an all-black vision of heaven as a perpetual fish-fry, full of black angels and cherubs eating catfish and smoking 10-cent "see-gars," where "De Lawd" (Rex Ingram) presides over the tales of creation: Noah and the Flood; Joshua at Jericho; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Adam and Eve; Moses and Pharaoh; etc. With heavenly accompaniment by the Hall Johnson Choir, these Bible stories play like a lavish fantasy revival, and while the stereotypical images and all-black colloquialisms may seem absurdly regressive from the perspective of latter-day enlightenment, there's no denying that The Green Pastures
is still a transcendently joyful celebration of faith. As a relic of its time, it's a vivid (and for some, still uncomfortable) reminder that racial stereotypes--even in a joyful gospel context--can teach us a lot about where we've been, and where we've yet to go. --Jeff Shannon
On the DVD
The Green Pastures is accompanied by an excellent DVD commentary in which actor/director LeVar Burton and African American cultural scholars Herb Boyd and Ed Guerrero (author of Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film) place the film in proper historical context. Burton candidly explains why he could never watch Green Pastures in its entirety until he gained the detached perspective of an actor/director, while Boyd and Guerrero relate many of the precedents and milestones that inform such '30s-era movies as The Green Pastures and Cabin in the Sky. Entertaining and informative, their commentary is essential listening for anyone seeking an enlightened perspective on racial stereotypes of the past. Also included, for similar historical appreciation, are two Vitaphone shorts from the early 1930s: "Rufus Jones for President" is a lively "two-reeler" (20 minutes) in which the 7-year-old future Rat Pack star Sammy Davis Jr. sings and dances (along with blues great Ethel Waters) as a young boy who fantasizes about becoming President of the United States. "An All-Colored Vaudeville Show" delivers just what the title promises: a stage revue of black performers including Broadway star Adelaide Hall and the legendary tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers. Both shorts represent all that was good--and bad--about Depression-era show business as a vibrant showcase for African American performers and the social conditions through which they endured. --Jeff Shannon