This 1936 all-black folk interpretation of the Old Testament draws 'Uncle Tom'-style flak from liberal academia, and maybe they're right (1), but on the other hand, God is portrayed as a black man (Rex Ingram), and He is a God of Wrath and Vengeance. So, while he may talk gentle and folksy, and heaven may be just clouds and an endless singing, fish-fries, five cent ceegars, and cups of firmament-deficient custard, it's still no place for buffoonery. And I personally love the shit out of this movie, and if part of that love comes from a kind or round-about racism, then stone me not lest ye be first stoned, as I was when I had it on a six-hour tape sandwiched between a host of 30s Betty Boop cartoons and Death Takes a Holiday (1934). The tape was labeled "In case of Emergency" - knowing this blog you might guess what kind of emergency I meant. For nary a month or so went by that my weird self-medication regimen wouldn't fail on me, to the point I'd drunkenly and ill-advisedly take too much acid in order to pull myself out of a spiritual tailspin and instead wind up spinning even faster, the yawning chasm of Hell opening up before me. In those dark moments, with Death so close I could see its reflection in the toilet bowl mirror, I'd reach for the Boop-Pastures-Holiday trifecta tape, and lo, I would be healed. "Nothing dies forever," (perhaps) a (mis)quote I heard while in the other room during Expendables 3. Ain't it apt?
Because for all its folksy drinkin' mammy wine illiterate racist caricature stereotypin', Green Pastures won't stay dead. At its core it's not about the black experience so much as it is about how suffering is the requisite prelude to compassion. In its clear-headed mystical scissor complexity it is a very modernist film, fusing the mythos of the Old Testament to the mythos of the Carl Sandburg/Mark Twain-folksy Old South, with nary a nod to any kind of banal social realism or political correctness along the way. It's darker than blue and wrong as acid rain, but it goes down sweet as whole bottle of vanilla extract, gulped down as a last resort on a blue law Sunday when the shakes are so bad you can't even get off your knees without dry-heaving. Like that extract's effect on a shattered alcoholic system, the Green Pastures' sweetness helps you keep it down even as its potency warms you up. The gentle but properly aligned gravitas of Ingram's God is like a salve to a wound that's bled your soul, mind, and spirit into one raw wound. He's like a draft of Moby Dick's hot blood in a shiny grail fed to a crippled Ahab. He doesn't grow back a new hollow leg, but he just might make it to the kitchen on the one he has. And me, during that brutal Sunday hangover while miserably alone and bereft and it's winter and work looming like the gallows, man, the thought of an entire keg of liquor waiting on a nice rainy ark, with everything from guys in gorilla suits to freshly painted zebras for company, is like a salve that erases the pain from my phantom limb.
To a poor space cowboy fallen so far off his horse he'd already passed the ground three times, dancing as he plummets, like St. Vitus on a string, Ingram is the one lord who makes sense, the only lord you trust.
1930--the year Green Pastures was written (first as a play)--was a year of expanded demographical suffering for this great country. A whole lot of once middle class white folks--many of them decorated war heroes--were suddenly very enlightened in how it felt to be poor as hell, spat on by the cops, forced to sleep in Central Park and to take whatever demeaning job was offered for however insultingly little. The market crashed, the Depression was on, there was no such thing as minimum wage, and you couldn't even drown your sorrows, thanks to Prohibition. FDR was still three years away, but Hitler was rolling slowly but inexorably into view as well. They'd both hit their full power the same year, ushering in respective sweeping reforms (like highway building), but in 1930 only the factors that created the need for them existed. What there was, instead, the manifestation of a need for some kind of faith that white audiences could embrace without feeling overly churchy. In other words, we could--through the "American Negro Spiritual" get our needed spiritual uplift with just the right sociological distance.
This appreciation for black spirituality--real or imagined--took root in a lot of us who grew up in 70s Middle Class mostly-all White America, I was used to black people more as TV characters than neighbors: Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and What's Happening! and of course radio, where you couldn't tell who was male or female ("Hot Child in the City" was my favorite song 'til I learned it was sung by a man) let alone black or white. Our sense that the racist jokes and cartoons we saw and heard were wrong didn't really sink in until Roots came along, and we--along with the bulk of white America--were all like, holy shit, that really happened?! We quietly threw our joke books away, and watered the seeds of our newly planted collective social guilt like it was a rare orchid.
At the same time, I today regard with suspicion the uber-liberal academe for whom ever single word spoken in popular media on this subject is either vile and racist or safely didactic, flavorless, and dour. A black actor for these lefty liberals has to 'represent' color, one way or another, elevating or denigrating with his or her every step and word. To quote one of Green Pasture's angels as he looks down from the clouds at Jesus carrying the cross, "that's a terrible burden for one man." Performing the opposite of that kind of mono-dimensional liberal strait-jacketing, Green Pastures' modality recognizes the universal man as black via accentuation of the black man as Other rather than a bland mouthpiece for the kind of sanitized PC sermonizing that reinforces stereotypes even as it works so mawkishly to transcend them.
White fans of black culture like myself (and Quentin Tarantino) risk demonization at the hands of the hysteric left for the crime of looking at the vibrant soul of the black performer with vampiric envy. We recognize that vitality, that wellspring of submarine missile-to-stratosphere soul as something we lack, seeing and hearing them we feel it in our bones, we long to absorb that resonance, that heavy frequency. The hard left tries to create equality by denying that resonance, by claiming it's just white nonsense. Spike Lee will tell Tarantino's fans to be ashamed for loving his liberally N-word peppered dialogue, but art flowers in the offal of wrongness; it withers and dies when subjected to 'peer-reviewed journal' correctness. Those journals are either part of--or at the mercy of--political dissent-promoters who just don't 'feel comfortable' with genuine subversion of the status quo. They need iron gates installed around the campus just so they can demand the gates be removed. They feel the common man's plight, but only if they don't have to eat next to him, for truly he lacketh table manners.
We should also remember that the most racist of all biblical films are really those deadly dull ones that cast only white actors, sometimes in black, brown, or yellow face, to play the biblical figures. Based on the relatively small geographic area where most of the Old Testament transpires, characters should all actually be Arab or North African. Where else in popular culture, aside from that Isaac Hayes album Black Moses or on Kwanzaa tapestries, are Old Testament characters black? The black man is the original man, true? So no other race should portray Adam, or Moses for that matter, and that means everyone else in the bible should be played by some mix of Northern African and Middle Eastern heritage, Jews included as part of the Israel / Ishmael divide. (2)
Toward the end, in the midst of a WWI-style battle, comes a son of Adam named Azrel who runs into God and--like all the other humans but Noah--never recognizes him (even though he's played by the same actor). "Maybe we was tired of that old God," notes Azrel, for he and his people have created a different God for themselves, one way nicer than He is. God is feeling wrathful at this but Azrel lays a trip on God that cuts deep: man needs God to be a god of mercy, not vengeance. If he's to thrive, and to understand the concept of mercy, this means that even God must suffer. Suffering brings an understanding of the power of forgiveness --it can be learned no other way. Azrel won't even acknowledge the wrath of the old God, regardless of the God's intimidation tactics. The new God is merciful and kind, and even God Himself doesn't have a say in the matter.
So in a sense this movie, in its bizarre unheimliche mix of historical fact and mythic 'telephone game' translation and editing, gets at a truth too deep to convey with anything like dull DeMille solemnity.
If all that doesn't mean anything to you, o judger of my love for Pastures as 'benevolent racism' then just this: The Hal Johnson Choir does some great singing as the Heavenly angel congregation, the kind of music we don't hear nowadays when gospel is either Mahalia Jackson style (which is awesome) or classic (which is stodgy and tedious at best). Hal Johnson's choir is more attuned to, say, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, another old trippy favorite of mine. Pastures is not a musical and the songs mostly serve as transitions between scenes, as God meddles with or just visits the folks on his Earth through the centuries, like a botanist checking on his experimental orchids, deciding whether or not to wipe out this latest breed and start splicing again.
And if the language seems outdated, note of the original bible text (which I looked up wondering what the hell firmament was):
Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day (GENESIS 1.6-8)Jeezis that's muddily incoherent speaking on old God's part. I far prefer de Lawd's version:
"Let there be some firmament, and I don't mean no little bit of firmament. I mean a whole mess of firmament, 'cuz I'm sick of running out of it when we need it.".
Like a lot of enduring mythic texts, the Old Testament defies easy interpretation as either truth or fiction, i.e. it is true myth, tall tales in a sense, ala John Henry if crossed with the historical fact of Joe Louis, Leadbelly, and Louis Armstrong. It's a text rife with magical staffs and personifications of elemental forces that were probably never meant to be taken as concretized dogma (3) as there are huge gaps in logic that my Sunday school teacher never could answer for me. For example, who did the children of Adam and Eve go off and marry if there were yet no other people? And later the children of Noah, the same question. Did they mate with some prehuman life form? Or with each other? If with each other--and this goes for the two of each kind of animal Ark system--how, with such a small gene pool are we not all deformed inbred monsters?
My Sunday School teacher was worse than ignorant of the answers, she radiated the smell of elderly skin and rotting old lady teeth, which coupled to fellow student Marilyn's infernal and endless sniffling, further abstracted the meaning we might derive from our reading the bible aloud, around and around the table, the abstract and redundantly worded language of the text devolving further and further into meaninglessness as we kids had neither the education nor the interest to find meaning to the words, so would either rush through the text in a bland monotone (Marilyn), stutter and mispronounce every word (Terry), or make fun of it by emphasizing random words in a hammy voice (me). Green Pastures at least has the gumption to discern the common threads in the text and summarize its events into as a relevant and moving preface to the New Testament.
The moral being, even God sometimes needs to suffer to grow, and the only we God can understand mercy is through suffering, the kind that comes from seeing your son die on a cross. Through acceptance of, through the unmitigated feeling of hangovers, pain and woe comes transmutation into solace--isn't that what the blues is all about?
For first world middle class white kids like myself, with no diseases or ailments or crippling accidents or arrests of any kind, we can really only know true suffering via mental illness, such as depression, or our own drug withdrawal or bad trip overdoses on psychedelics that turn out to be laced with strychnine or formaldehyde, or are just way stronger than we were prepared for, amplifying our sense of loneliness and isolation to the point of existential agony. Failing that, it's my opinion suicide attempts are a last ditch effort to achieve the same grace, because if you survive, suddenly your once stifling woes are dialed back into focus. For suffering is the fire of God the blacksmith, melting down your frying pan soul to hammer it into a mighty sword. Best learn to love the sound of the hammer ringing, because He's never satisfied, not 'til your shiny and pure and sharp as a Hattori Hanzo Bill-killing special. Here's a little song I wrote about it, ready?
The dentist is not punched for his painful probe;
you pay him for the privilege. So it is that the infant is forgiven his filthy diaper,
the old man his soiled bedsheets,
but not the young junky vagrant with no bowel control,
not the drunk, obscene, stumbling reminder
that no pursuit of pleasure escapes its counterbalance misery, and so to vice versa.
But if your crying is not from worry or the dread of dying
Allow it. Aummmmmm
If your crying is not from fear the manna shall soon cease its flow,
If your crying is not from thinking about tomorrow, the punishment when dad comes home,
the missed finals, the repetitions whose tedium is feared before it's even started
Where the twig meets the leaf is where the first frames of meshed mom morph.
Then it vibrates outward, the unspooling spiral of the seashell snail shape Aummmmmmm
shuffled downward onto plankton carpets, shamanic rattles caked in baby spittle,
white and shiny glistening like the freshly hatched serpent.
Aummmm, shapes cut from glowing red lantern spin orbit patterns as your crib surrounds.
Aummmmmmmmm, the holy gleaming halo of your last first faint sunset Aummmm.
Each death, night, goodbye, adieu just an outward breath Aummmmmmm.
Mom, that titan, that tower, encircles us no more tonight,
just the slow spinning stars of nontoxic plastic, above us,
out of reach, above the bars of our baby crypt.
The rattle dries into whiskey and drum sets, growing tall brings
girls of equal height, their breasts no longer big as beanbag chairs,
only the forgotten homework now stirs a guilty shiver
only that is the giant crib mom's harrowing equal in absence.
Buzzing, the razor stops suddenly, the chair
either dentist of barber, you forgot which,
The bib comes off.
to where, with such a naked neck?
And so we sense that the hangups that befoul our spiritual questing are all beaten and cleared away by the enormous suffering of the Jewish slaves and the black slaves, and the grotesque words, faces, jewelry and actions all speaking to a great evolutionary quality, as the grotesque exaggerations of blackness, the dice game, the koochie dancers, the grim inhumanity and shallow interest in 'tricks' gives way to hard-won dignity as humanity collectively moves from a pagan pantheon of animal gods and graven images (requiring human sacrifices) to the idea of a single, yet jealous god who demands fidelity, and finally to the one God himself changing from a god of wrath and vengeance to a god of love and forgiveness. It's all there in Ingram's face as de Lawd, and also as Adam, and also as Hezrel, a name that appears here and nowhere else.
During my 'here comes the big 12/21/12!' big rapture moment (4) I understood at last with diamond clarity that all the suffering in the world had only this one purpose, the shaking of the gold prospector's pan - to sift away the dross and mud so God might see what's left to shine, and all the baubles and wealth in the world won't buy you one step onto that golden stair, so don't be sure all that glitters in the Robert Plant's hair has two meanings.
But in losing all that, in tossing possessions away, in enduring centuries of slavery with one's every pain-wracked step (5), one earns it. No expensive wine ever tasted half as sweet as plain water to a man dying of dehydration in the desert. And to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, God made men into desert wanderers, that they might know this awesome vintage. There's no atheist in a foxhole so God made war a constant. And because I'm too pampered to want to wander and die in the desert just for a taste of this golden water nectar, too lazy and grandiose to want a walk-on part in the war, I became a psychedelic surgeon. But when I accidentally sew my ego into my soul via incorrect sutures and stay awake in the dark night of the soul despair, then I got Leadbelly, and Lightnin' Hopkins, and the Pastures, to raise me clear above it via a transcendental alchemical process of absorption, for their uniquely black pain and triumph comforts me, remindeth me the desert's always waiting, somewhere wrapped in foil in a forgotten college freezer, the 'good work' always ready to be picked up right where you left it. Aummm. And don't let the lord convince you that one keg of liquor on the ark is enough. Better take two kegs, lord.
A final word:
Ingram also played the devil's son-in-law in Cabin in the Sky, another all-black film that posits the negro culture as being more extreme in its polarity than whites (i.e. a black man is either a decent, God-fearing Christian or a debauched craps-shooting, razor-wielding pimp, nothing in between) gets far less critical dross, but I think is far more racist (7). In Cabin we never see the lord, Ingram is the devil; in Pastures we never see the devil and Ingram is the lord. And he played the genie in Thief of Baghdad! In short he's very good at playing larger than life mythic archetypes that far transcend the generic role of the 'bearer of the burden of blackness.' He genuinely seems to be asking, in that beautifully gentle but forceful purr of a voice, "Have you been baptized?" ("Yes, Lord" the choir responds) Have you been redeemed? ("Yes lord"), etc. He's a complex god because though he judges his creation his main request is that man honors him on Sunday, obeys the commandments, and doesn't go "fussin' and fightin' and bearin' false witness." He brings in the three Hebrew angels in long white beards, and declares "It so happens I love your family, and I delights to honor them." The angels mention their people are in bondage down in Egypt. "I know they is. Who do you think put them there?" The Angels look dismayed "Oh, that's okay, I'm a take 'em out again." The Angels smile - but again there's the nagging suspicion that God is a bit of an insecure egotist. A good parent understands his children are bound to disobey on occasion, that it's essential to good growth of independent thought (as an academic advisor I see the damage done by over-protective parents who work double time to prevent this independent thought in their children, leaving said children woefully unprepared for life outside the nest, and they don't learn even in college thanks to their ubiquitous cell phones).
During my last big awakening I became a ball of light unmoored from my body and 3D space time. I realized I was always either revolving closer to the godhead or farther away - but there was no such thing as true motionlessness, and to merge into the godhead obliterated all separateness, and can be dangerous -- like moths aren't meant to survive hitting the bulb they orbit. In this case it was a ground zero of infancy --the sun being mother's breast, her love, her giant presence.
When you're a baby, your mother is a gigantic icon, more then five times your size. You worship her and need look no farther for true sustenance and comfort and if you hold a good orbit you're okay, but drift too far from her amniotic light and it's total darkness. She becomes just another star as you drift (as seen in Enter the Void). And if you're not working back towards that holy light, the devil's got you in his long reach gravity, convincing you to curse, get drunk, and get more stuff because God doesn't exist anyway. True or not makes no difference: I feel this comforting gravity of the lord when watching Green Pastures. And that is enough. If there is a God, the miseries He creates here on Earth are to aid us in finding a streak of true faith and true mercy, true humility, the nonjudgmental love that unites all dualities back into a healthy radiant whole. There's really nothing else important -- life is just for this. It's all that lasts. Do I bend mighty low? I do. And showers of warm grateful tears are my reward.
Until the drugs wear off.
For New Testament Action, see Acidemic's 2011 Great Acid Cinema JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)
1. See G.S. Morris's great, even-handed analysis: Thank God for Uncle Tom. Race and Religion Collide in The Green Pastures (Bright Lights, Jan. 2008)
2. I don't know what I'm talking about here, shhhh!
3. Imagine if Aesop's Fables were taken as truth, with vintners making sure their vines are always low enough for foxes to reach, lest the grapes turn sour, etc.)
4. fall 2012 if you're keeping score, check the posts.
5. Giving away all your possessions and $$ gives you a rush of total freedom, if it didn't then cults wouldn't exist. Add to that the idea that a vegan diet is both very holy and right and yet makes you highly suggestible and passive, and drudgery and ceaseless toil give you clarity (i.e. when standing for 24 hours straight, lying down is a sublime ecstasy) then cults have a great rationale for all their exploitive behavior.
6. STP - or DOM - is a Berkeley chemist masterpiece, it's a sports car that comes with no brakes, and no way to de-accelerate, the gas tank just has to run itself out. I didn't know til Erowid that what I'd taken (DOM) was the same as what my doppelganger avatar Dave in Psych-Out (Dean Stockwell) . See: Great Acid Cinema: PSYCH-OUT (1968)
7. see one of my very first posts on this site: CABIN IN THE SKY: Co-Dependence and the Lord. (7/07)