In the twenty-first century, “The Green Pastures” is usually encountered as a movie on television. Its first incarnation was as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1931, running on Broadway for 640 performances over eighteen months, before making a highly successful, four-year national and international tour. It went back to Broadway for a second run in 1935 and was revived in 1951. It has been adapted to television as well as film.

              The play was written by Marc Connely, a playwright prodigy who wrote his first script at age five. 

His parents were actors, and he attended a private boarding school until age seventeen. His education ended with his 

Marc Connelly

parents’ financial problems; he entered journalism, gravitating to New York City and theatrical news. His first successful play came in 1921 and has been revived on Broadway as recently as 1970. He wrote Green Pastures in 1929, based on a short-story collection called, “Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun,” by Roark Bradford. If you'd like to explore the play more fully, here is a study guide, courtesy of Bookrags.  Here is a summary of the original Broadway production.                                     

Roark Bradford

            In 1936 Warner Brothers Pictures released a film version of the play, directed by Connelly and William Keighley. Both the play and the movie were controversial at the time and continue to be. Both feature an all black cast depicting the religious vision and convictions of characters speaking in what today sounds like Uncle Remus, or Amos and Andy dialect.

            During the play’s original run the typical criticism, from both black and white reviewers, centered principally on the religious depictions, especially the portrayal  of God Jehovah as black. Nevertheless, the play was highly popular and received favorable reviews from both white and black writers. By the 1951 Broadway revival criticism had switched to concerns about the racially stereotyped language. In more recent years the underlying theology has been analyzed by modern reviewers trying to place it within some human context without disregarding the obvious racial stereotyping. Here is what G. S. Morris had to say in 2008. The New York Times did a review in 2010.

            Aside from the timeless artistic impact of the movie, watching it today, over eighty years since the play’s inception, provides a measuring stick through the social strata between that time and this. Reactions are necessarily flavored by the chronological roots of the viewer. Those old enough to remember the movie’s original release, who lived through all the intervening disruption and evolution of racial attitudes in America, will have a different experience than those dropped into the stream later. All will experience the movie from the snapshot of society at the moment of their birth.

            It is unquestionable that the movie depicts a white man’s imaginings of the black religious experience in the early twentieth century. That the cast is all black doesn’t soften this truth. That black reviewers were generally positive about both play and movie doesn’t change it. During its filming the movie was derided by some in the black press for its depiction of black religion, rather than its, to modern ears, minstrel-show dialog.  In fact, for the movie, the point of view was changed to that of a little girl, apparently to justify the childlike religious perspective.

            It was generally, and guardedly, welcomed in the black press of the time as a vehicle of employment for underpaid black actors. Careers were made and enhanced. Hall Johnson’s Negro Choir, organized in 1925, was already famous by the time they appeared in the movie, but the exposure enhanced their fame and fortune.

Hall Johnson

Hall Johnson Choir

            When Roark wrote the stories on which the play was based, he was drawing on his personal experiences as a resident of Tennessee and New Orleans, and specifically intended to portray what he thought of as the childlike religious beliefs of adult black people. It is no wonder the adult black people who commented on the play objected to their religious content. That white people must also have been troubled by the same thing is attested by Warner Brothers’ decision to depict the vision as coming from the mind of a child.

            The movie follows the evolution of Jehovah from God of Wrath to God of Love, tracing the Old Testament into the New, up to the crucifixion. Slavery is an important motif throughout the film, in Egypt and Babylon. We see God amble into the creation of first, the world, and then, mankind as a kind of poorly -thought-out series of spur of the moment decisions. “I’ll rear back and pass a miracle.” Like the protagonist of most three-wishes stories, he discovers unintended consequences. “Trouble with miracles is when you pass one you usually have to rear back and pass another.” He finds his new creation a distraction and goes down for a look, lamenting how things have turned out. He bargains with Noah. He gives Moses some magic tricks. He seems disengaged with the struggling and suffering until things really displease him, when the Israelites are in captivity in Babylon and fall into sin. He disowns them but is finally won over again by their perseverance. He discovers that suffering is the key to faith and that even God must suffer. “De Lawd’s” face is beatific as Christ is led to Golgotha.

            How to view this movie today? Is it a worthless throwback to a racially embarrassing time? Does it have a deeper message or at least some valuable artistic merit? White people will see it differently than black people and perhaps become defensive about their appreciation of it. Are they just enjoying a good minstrel show or is something else going on? For insight into current opinions of the movie see here.

            To modern eyes and ears the most readily available offense given by the movie is its unabashed stereotyping of black language, customs and behavior. Heaven is an ongoing fish fry and Jehovah calls for a little “mo ferment” in the custard. Social interaction among humans is crap games, jiving, and lodge meetings. But aren’t stereotypes used in all kinds of successful writing and art? Aren’t the paintings of Grandma Moses stereotypical? What about most popular, genre fiction and almost all of popular movies and television shows? Don’t they rely on stereotypes for humor, dramatic expression, and off-the-shelf plots? Hasn’t it always been thus for all artistic expression? Didn’t Shakespeare use stereotypes? Yes, Amos and Andy exploited stereotypes, but so did the Lum and Abner radio show. What’s the difference?


            There is an obvious difference. We all know the difference. The real-life humans beneath the stereotypes of Grandma Moses, Shakespeare and Lum and Abner, were never the subjects of legalized slavery nor the targets of a well-organized, government-sponsored system of terror. For a thoughtful analysis  of what it all means, or could mean, to Americans of all societies, see this treatment by Judith Weisenfeld.

            Most of us, white and black, have been on a journey of self-discovery over the last century, not unlike the journey of the movie’s Jehovah from the Old Testament to the New. Even people who have always had the best of racial intentions have progressed and deepened their understanding of what it means to see through the eyes of “the other.” Prior to “Brown Vs Board of Education” most white people gave insufficient thought to the reasons for the obvious black underclass status. Some very large percentage of white Americans born from 1880 to 1930, considering themselves racially enlightened and sympathetic, believed God had made black people inferior to the whites and it was the job of the white people to take care of them. They’d been raised on Rudyard Kipling’s catch phrase, "the white man's burden."  The attitude, so shockingly retro-progressive, of the newly discovered Atticus Finch in “Go Set a Watchman,” was once typical of well intentioned people. During the serious attempts to pass civil rights legislation, when the American people began to demand it, from the mid-1950s through passage of the voting rights act of 1965, there was a shocked awakening to the true boundaries of American freedom, and to the disaster that had been fermenting and infecting every American community and institution. The awakening has been long and fitful and goes on still, reassembling society. A movie like “The Green Pastures” is a disquieting reminder of where we used to be. But is it more than that? Does it have now, and did it have then, true artistic merit? If we enjoy the interaction between God and his humans, if we see a glimpse of eternity in Jehovah's evolution, if we recognize the rendering of heaven in human terms, are we playing off the stereotypes of oppression or are we seeing ourselves reflected in a microcosm of the human struggle? We can learn from each other on the subject, and from ourselves, especially the selves we used to be in that strangely near, but long-gone era.