Suppose you had to choose the single motion picture that dealt most seriously and challengingly with religious matters. What might it be? Offhand, I can think of a dozen or so possible answers from various countries, and probably most cinema-literate people would agree on at least a common short list. It’s a reasonable bet, though, that few such lists would include one example of an American film that really should demand our attention and, I would argue, our profound respect, and that is the 1936 film The Green Pastures. Controversial for its portrayal of black Americans, the film has become so sensitive that it has been largely confined to the same historical vault for the politically and culturally incorrect as the old-time minstrel show. And that is a tragedy, because this is not just a major piece of American culture, but a thoughtful contribution to popular theology.
To begin with, some background. In 1928, Roark Bradford wrote the story collection Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, depicting the Old Testament stories as imagined through the eyes of a young black girl in New Orleans. In 1930, Marc Connelly adapted the stories as a hugely popular Broadway play under the title The Green Pastures, which in turn became the 1936 film. The film retold the stories of the Old Testament as conceived by children in a Southern Sunday school, and that accounts for the deliberately ludicrous portrayals of some characters with their cotton-candy beards, and “darky” stereotypes run rampant. The dialogue occasionally lapses into something like Amos ’n’ Andy, and God himself is De Lawd. Particularly as both Bradford and Connelly were white, that portrait irritated black observers at the time, and has infuriated critics from the 1960’s onward.
When you watch the film, though, you note some features that run flat contrary to the minstrel-show image. The film boasts a stellar all-black cast, above all in the magnificent Rex Ingram, who plays De Lawd. And then there is that one hair-raising scene when a puzzled Lawd visits Earth to investigate rumors of gallant Hebrews fighting bravely for right and justice, led by the warrior Hezdrel (also played by Ingram). As you watch Hezdrel’s force, you see something that was literally inconceivable in Hollywood at the time—namely, a group of tough, well-armed black soldiers, who march against suicidal odds and are ready to lay down their lives in their cause. In terms of black imagery on screen, this was a half-century ahead of its time. (Even in the 1980’s, the popular Civil War film Glory had to focus on the white officer who led his black regiment into battle.)
Just as intriguing is the film’s central theological theme. Anyone who reads the Bible has to deal with the apparent contrast between the savage and primitive qualities attributed to God in the earliest books, the tribal God who orders His opponents butchered and enslaved, and the exalted universal figure of the great prophets, and of the New Testament. Different thinkers have offered various explanations of this conundrum: Perhaps, as early Christian heretics postulated, these really were two distinct and rival gods; or perhaps the humans who recorded God’s words grew over time in their understanding of the divine. And then you have the answer offered by The Green Pastures, which is that, in a sense, God Himself evolves, a daring idea that has been seriously proposed by some modern theologians.
As the film depicts De Lawd’s dealings with successive generations of humans, he becomes ever more disgusted with their evils and flaws. He visits Earth long enough to see and destroy the evil city of Babylon and its king, but once he has done that, he withdraws entirely from any contact with his creation. And then, astonishingly, he hears about Hezdrel’s Hebrew warriors, who are struggling in the name of a god they imagine, who is markedly superior to the temperamental and irascible Lawd we have come to know. De Lawd himself has not told them to behave thus, and he can scarcely understand what they are doing. But these true Hebrews have moved far beyond the old judgmental God of wrath and vengeance.
While they still respect Moses, they now follow great prophets like Hosea, and through suffering, they have conceived of a pure deity of mercy. Not only have human beings risen morally, but so has De Lawd himself, who admits freely that he was “way behind the times.” De Lawd has learned from his creatures, and he comes to share in human sufferings through the self-giving of Jesus, the ultimate act of mercy. People learn from God; God learns from people.
You don’t have to accept that interpretation of the biblical dilemma to be impressed, and moved, by the presentation. How many other Hollywood films ever make us think seriously about theology?