"God appears in many forms to those who believe in him. Thousands of Negroes 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 passage opens the 1936 classic, Green Pastures. It almost serves as a disclaimer. The film uses some of the popular stereotypical coon antics of the time to embrace what was a revolutionary concept. It used Black actors to interpret the story of The Old Testament, portraying everyone from Moses to God almighty. At a time when black actors struggled harder than any other period, this film emerged with the historical significance of being the first in history to use an entirely black cast. Previously, many black roles were done by whites in blackface make-up, a standard form of characterization carried over from the Vaudeville Minstrelsy days. Negro actors occasionally lucked up on bit and supporting roles in white films. This project employed all colored perfomers, many of whom returned to domestic jobs and similar work after the Hollywood dream became more and more elusive.
Green Pastures offers a glimpse of writer Marc Connelly's vision of Negro Heaven, complete with fish frys, 10 cent cigars, and rambunctious angel "chillun" who get reprimanded for mischievously riding the clouds. It is interesting to see how a Black God becomes compelled to create the Earth, become so angered at the condition of mankind that he destroys it, and decides to try it again. The film delivers the story of Adam and Eve, Noah and the great flood, Moses leading his people to the promised land, and even God's relationship with his arch angel, Gabriel among others.
Green Pastures enjoyed great success as a Broadway play which led to it eventually becoming a hugely successful film, selling 6,000 tickets every hour when it first opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Even if you are familiar with the scriptures you may find it's approach to be intriguing or at the very least a departure from how they are normally interpreted. With the benefit of hindsight we can look at this film and take comfort in the fact that we have struggled beyond the time when we had to "Coon" for the camera in order to get a break. At the same time it may be somewhat alarming to consider that in more recent eras we have become so detached from representing the strong spiritual foundation of our people on film. While the imagery may be somewhat disturbing at times for the modern conciousness, one still comes away from this film with the feeling that black people enjoy a divine spiritual connection that transcends our Earthly struggles. This stands as a distinctive achievement considering the very limited opportunity for Black actors at the time.
The Hall Johnson Choir provides stirring renditions of classic spirituals for the soundtrack. As "De Lawd", actor Rex Ingram delivers a brilliant performance as a God who loves one and all but gets so frustrated with some of mankind's wicked ways that he becomes full of wrath and vengeance. Eventually, he finds enough goodness in us to discover the virtues of Mercy. As we embark on this new Millennium it seems that it might not be a bad idea for all of us, regardless of religious denomination or spiritual doctrine, to check out this movie and touch base with our ancestors offering of the divine creator's intentions for us. After all it's just a movie. Right?