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Winokur | Green Pastures as an Allegory of Accommodation: Christ, Race, and the All-Black Musical Mark Winokur Department of English, Rhodes College The Green Pastures as an Allegory of Accommodation: Christ, Race, and the All-Black Musical H) f/ y^yhdX one's imagination makes of other people is dictated, of course, by the laws of one's own personality and it is one of the ironies of black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is.James Baldwin Mark Connelly's The Green Pastures (Warner Brothers, 1936), a Depression-era all-black musical, should be seen within the context ofHollywood representation (especiallythe "plantation film" genre); independentAfrican-American film of the 1930s; and the Great Depression. While the religious representation of the film is traditionally racist-supporting the segregationist politics of Jim Crow during and after the era of the Harlem Renaissance-this racism is interestingly heterodox. It offers several levels of allegorical connections-though the text privileges one allegory signifying Christ— between religious appropriation and political repression in a still-new visual medium. Further, the film offers several odd variants amounting to a panorama of racial stereotyping. The whole enterprise is an emblem for the imbroglio of the "liberal" representation of race. The play and the film were written, not by a D.W. Griffith-a sensibility deeply aligned with a Southern sense of the hierarchy of master and slave-but by a playwright born in Pennsylvania, educated at Trinity Hall, employed as a journalist, first by the Pittsburgh Press, and then by the NewYork Morning Telegraph and TheNew Yorker. Later in his career, Connelly was a United States Commissioner to UNESCO, and a professor at the Yale University Drama School. A later play, The Mole on Lincoln's Cheek (1941), critiqued easy and hypocritical "Americanism." 6 I Film & History The Black Image in Film | Special In-Depth Section Connelly's representation of race is ambiguous. On the one hand, the film cannot get black culture right—does not, for example, refer to contemporary urban black culture except in broad satire—but rather allegorizes traditional minstrel and literary types: Uncle Tom, the coon, the mammy, and so on. On the other hand, the minstrelsy is "liberal": a more enlightened view ofAfrican America that allows the black representation a greater degree of dignity and a wider latitude ofbehavior. (In a connected manner, the film's racism parallels the politics of some contemporaneous African-American films.) It is my contention that the film is interestingly repressive, with Hollywood using Connelly to create itself and American culture, not only as plantation culture, but as Christie, recreating its own Jewishness as black, and then subordinating both under an invisible Christ whom one can approach (historically) but never be or see. Christ becomes anti-revolutionary, in counterpoint to the trend in African-American culture since at least the early twentieth century to radicalize the figure of Christ as black. The film is only marginally treated in critical literature, more in earlier criticism of the 1970s, less in later criticism of the 1990s, which, after discovering independent black cinema, has justifiably had a much more difficult time with pre-WWII Hollywood representation. The film is extensively treated in Thomas Cripps's Slow Fade to Black1 and in his Introduction to an edition of the film script,2 and in Donald Bogle's Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. Mark Reid, who attempts to define and categorize minstrel (and "hybrid minstrel ") films, does not mention it or such related films as Hallelujah (1929) at all, mentioning Cabin in the Sky (1943) just briefly.3 Despite the generality of its title, Michael Eric Dyson's Refìecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism remains mystifyingly and completely absorbed with contemporary culture.4 Consequently, at this particular critical moment , Hollywood-style or influenced race films tend to be read either as white texts that obviously orientalize their subjects through minstrelsy or some similar idiom—The Birth ofa Nation (1915)— or as texts whose politics are unarguably correct, even didactic—Boyz N the Hood (1991). The more difficult dynamics are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9922
Print ISSN
0360-3695
Pages
pp. 6-16
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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