Bright Lights Film Journal

Thank God for Uncle Tom: Race and Religion Collide in <em>The Green Pastures</em>

A kinder, gentler condescension

For all its historical significance as one of only six all-black films made during the Hollywood Studio era, The Green Pastures (1936) has been largely neglected by criticism. Only Nick Aaron Ford and Paul Nolan have attempted serious, focused criticisms, and these in 1959 and 1965, respectively. Donald Bogle, in his seminal history Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, reduces the film to a charming but still woefully stereotypical folktale, “the liveliest collection of agreeable toms, uncle remuses, aunt jemimas, and corn-patch pickaninnies ever assembled in one motion picture,” and argues that only the “sheer dynamics and unabashed delight” of the actors saves the film.1 Thomas Cripps, in Slow Fade to Black, is more forgiving, claiming that Pastures “rose above the common ruck, averted the worst taints of Southern metaphor, and brought black Southern folk religion to a wide and appreciative audience”2; however, Cripps concedes that the film is a “compromise” in its depiction of both race and religion,3 and much of his Annotation to Marc Connelly’s screenplay focuses on Connelly’s failure to craft a consistent and morally satisfying theological vision.

Yet if we take Connelly at his word, in a 1970 interview for American Heritage magazine, his play was intended as a serious religious effort:

I wanted to find, as I wrote, some reason for the rejection of conventional liturgy that was spreading through my generation. We were all becoming agnostics. I wasn’t profound enough, in my own mind, to be able to recognize what I see now — that we simply wanted conscious escapes from tradition, from the childhood habits of religion.4

In choosing Roark Bradford’s Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun as his source, Connelly claims “my play used the ambiance, the milieu, of the Negro, but it’s bigger than race. […] Green Pastures was, at heart, about humanity, but maybe that’s a little hard to explain today.”5 These comments reveal three crucial facts about the creator of The Green Pastures that mark the work: first, Connelly was not a religious person, certainly not theologically knowledgeable; secondly, he was not consciously concerned with race, either in the depiction of African Americans or in being “part of any civil rights movement, as for or against any movement”;6 thirdly, his choice of the African American “ambiance” and “milieu” is motivated by his desire for a religion that would provide a “conscious [escape]” from the tradition of his white, Northern, Anglo-Saxon culture. Critiques of Connelly’s failure to accurately depict African American folk religion, such as those by Ford and Bogle, miss the point: Connelly intends not a realistic portrayal of the souls of black folk, but a comforting, nonjudgmental, harmlessly tolerant religion that can provide a balm for his increasingly agnostic generation. He achieves this dubious purpose by locating his God in a kindly Uncle Tom — “hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind.”7 With his Uncle Tom God, Connelly crafts a religious vision that can satisfy his spiritual needs while affirming his own white liberal racism and defending the white, middle-class status quo.

In his introduction to the published screenplay, Cripps depicts Connelly (right) as a conventional Northern white liberal, maintaining “an affectionate neutrality toward Afro-Americans, sympathizing with their plight, enjoying the company of the few blacks who served them, and condemning the worst of the ‘southern outrages'” — that is to say, subconsciously racist but too polite and well bred to be seen as a bigot.8 His own comments in the 1970 interview uphold this depiction. Connelly asserts that “there was never any discrimination or nastiness within the company; quite the opposite,” then proceeds to tell a condescending story from the theater run about a long, tiring rehearsal to which the punchline is “You’re as bad as a bunch of white actors.”9 The sly self-deprecation from a position of authority exemplifies Connelly’s attitude toward his cast and the characters they play — he stoops to authorize. Yet the implication remains that a good black actor is one that is easily controlled, uncomplaining, and tireless, like a good servant. Later, he says of the reviews, “A couple of ‘hysteroids’ up in Harlem did some heavy drum beating, but it was to such a small extent, over-all, that it meant nothing.”10 The choice of “drum-beating,” while used as a presumably benign cliché, takes on uncomfortably racist tones in context. Connelly concludes his remarks on The Green Pastures by suggesting that “it could never be revived now, under the present climate. God, no. The Negro’s picture of himself right now, in this unconscious snobbism in which he is existing, wouldn’t allow it.”11 Yet again, Connelly seems unaware of racist undertones in his statements; he states a fact, not an opinion, about the Negro’s snobbism, with no more intentional malice than if he had stated that “the Negro,” a singular entity, has darker skin than “the Caucasian.”

This analysis of Connelly’s racism should not be taken as a moral condemnation, only as establishing Connelly’s disinterest in racial issues altogether; he is blissfully unconscious of his own racism, and, like many of his peers, considers African Americans only insofar as their existence affects him. For Connelly, “the Negro” is a color in his palette — the primary color, certainly, but only one element necessary for his masterwork. Therefore, while studies of how The Green Pastures constructs race have a particular value for cultural studies, race is secondary in examining the religion of the film — in fact, it is a distraction. The rhetorical vision of the film intentionally sidesteps any racial issues by creating a world without white characters; this exclusion serves the needs both of Hollywood (which was as squeamish about race as about religion, except insofar as either could be made profitable) and Connelly. Connelly’s vision rests on a paradox: he uses an artificial, white-fantasy “Negro folk religion” to provide a simple, “honest” context for his attempted crafting of a safe religion; but in a racially divided society the race of the characters and actors is a continual, distracting presence that must be alleviated.

Thus, for instance, Connelly’s choice of a black God. While Bradford’s book depicts God as an old white Colonel, Connelly decides that God must be a black man; in his own words, “The black God was my idea; that’s the only way you could have made it consistent. You had to try to think of the Old Testament as it would be looked at by ingenuous, uninformed Negroes, especially the illiterate, underprivileged field hands of the Deep South.”12 The objections raised by Ford and Bogle — “Because of religious indoctrination during slavery, the Negro cannot imagine a black God” — are, yet again, beside the point.13 Connelly may claim, or even believe, that his choice is more authentic, but the choice is again dictated by his own desire: by making his God a gentle, tolerant Uncle Tom, Connelly presents the God he wants to believe in. This God confirms Connelly’s vision of what African Americans should be — more malleable and docile than “a bunch of white actors.” This God can be dignified in the narrow sphere of dignity Connelly can afford for a black man (if Green Pastures were ever remade, Morgan Freeman would certainly be the first choice for De Lawd). For these purposes, Rex Ingram was undoubtedly an ideal choice for De Lawd; as Bogle describes him, Ingram possessed a “stentorian voice that could in one moment be raised triumphantly in anger and in the next lowered in sympathy or remorse,” who could play God as “a backwoods preacher, but one ironically detached enough from himself so that he could play the role with moderation.”14 His ability to turn from anger to sympathy in a moment, and his sense of cool but kind detachment, are keys to Connelly’s construction of God — Connelly’s God may call himself a God of wrath, but the circumstances of the film, and Ingram’s portrayal, mitigate God’s wrath. He is, in Nolan’s words, “concerned with the well-being of his creatures, tolerant, generous, feeling — but removed.”15

Connelly’s God is exemplified in the brief but powerful scene in which he confronts Cain after the murder of Abel. Nolan astutely realizes that “Connelly’s God is, of course, not the author of evil. He is, however, it should be noted, not the final judge either; indeed he finally concludes that he has no responsibility for man.”16 Connelly ignores the original biblical motivation — Cain’s jealousy over Abel’s sacrifice — and instead presents a childish sibling conflict. Cain relates, “Lawd, I was min’in’ my own business. Wukkin’ in de fiel’. He was sittin’ in de shade of de tree. He say, ‘Me, I’d be skeered to git out in dis hot sun. I be ‘fraid my brains git cooked. Co’se you ain’t got no brains so you ain’ in no danger.’ An’ so I up an flang de rock. If I miss ‘im all right — if I hit ‘im all right. Dat’s de way I feel.” In the scene as filmed, Cain is near hysterical — the murder is a crime of passion and frustration, as much an accident as an act of malice — and he makes no effort, as in Genesis, to hide his crime. He is, in fact, distraught at what he has done. In Connelly’s stage play, De Lawd tells Cain, “Well, I ain’t sayin’ you right an’ I ain’t sayin’ you wrong,” a position Ford condemns as too “wishy-washy” for a Negro conception of God.17 The film removes the line but not the ambivalence. De Lawd is not wishy-washy but removed, a characteristic heightened by the directorial choice to show De Lawd and Cain exclusively in one-shots after an establishing shot that shows De Lawd looking down at Abel’s body with an almost clinical detachment. Rather than a stark condemnation, God says coolly “From now on dat’s called a crime” and instructs Cain “I say git yo’self down de road an’ far away. An’ you better git married an’ settle down an’ raise some chillun. Dey ain’t nothin’ to make a man fo’git his troubles like raisin’ a fam’ly.” In this brief exchange, we see a God who listens to a sinner’s explanation and forgives sin surprisingly easily, simply because he is removed and kind. God seems more concerned with Cain’s mental state than with punishment, or even justice: “Dey ain’t nothin’ to make a man fo’git his troubles like raisin’ a fam’ly.” That easy forgiveness, and with it a protection of the status quo (reinforcing an attitude toward family conventional in white middle-class American life), is precisely what Connelly seems intent on finding. De Lawd may look terrible, thanks to the lighting, but his words betray him.

Connelly’s version of faith is as evident in the aspects of the story that are conspicuously missing as in those he chooses to stage. There is, for instance, no scene of the Fall of Man, only God’s forbidding of the fruit and a moment of anxiety as Adam and Eve realize they have been left alone. The scene then cuts to the frame story of the Sunday School class, in which Mr. Deshee asks the children what happened. A little girl, Myrtle, answers that they ate the forbidden fruit; when Mr. Deshee asks what happened next, she answers, “Why, den dey felt ver’ bad.” Such is Connelly’s perspective on faith: the Fall of Man was not a catastrophe, but something that made Adam and Eve feel bad, necessitating the comforting of a kind old Uncle Tom. As in the scene with Cain, feeling is more important than theology. In losing a scene of the Fall, we also lose a Tempter; in fact, there is no Satan at all in Connelly’s religion. Cripps suggests that “in the logic of the situation Satan might be appropriately white, thereby disqualifying the film from seeking a small-town, nationwide, ‘crossover’ audience of blacks and whites.”18 Although this statement may be true, it is equally necessary to avoid Satan because an evil white character would bring the suppressed theme of race relations to the foreground. But there is another explanation as well — Satan simply does not fit into Connelly’s gentle, liberal vision. The presence of Satan would make the issue of sin more literally palpable, and therefore less easily brushed away. The only reference to Satan is therefore oblique, when God says offhandedly to Gabriel “I ain’t never tol’ you de trouble I had gittin’ things sta’ted up yere. Dat’s a story in itself” — a story Connelly does not see fit to tell.

Connelly’s treatment of the Crucifixion is also curious. The climax of the film is God’s confrontation with Hezdrel (right), Connelly’s apocryphal exemplar of spiritual manhood; Christ’s Crucifixion is only the denouement, presented as De Lawd’s response to Hezdrel’s challenge. When Hezdrel argues that he has learned mercy through suffering, De Lawd’s pained question — “Did he mean dat even God must suffer?” — is immediately answered with, “Listen! Dere’s someone else on de earth.” The angels peer over the gates of heaven and relate what is happening: “Dey gonter make him carry it up dat high hill! Dey gonter nail him to it! Oh, dat’s a terrible burden for one man to carry.” God stands in affirmation, throwing his arms out (in a pose intended to be benedictory, but disconcertingly reminiscent of Al Jolson), and the camera pulls back as the choir bursts into song. This entire scene seems curious for a film supposedly based on the Christian faith of Southern African Americans. Cripps notes with disappointment that “Connelly took only two and one half pages to carry God from his tribal origins to a more universal salvationism, resulting in an unfulfilled catharsis and a tacked-on ending.”19 To push the central myth of all Christian sects off-stage seems awkward at best and ignorant, even moronic, at worst. Yet this problem too is explained (if not satisfied) by remembering that Connelly is not a Christian; Connelly’s use of God and the Bible — as filtered through poor Southern blacks, further filtered through the stories of a white Southern aristocrat, and filtered yet again through a WASP agnostic — results in unavoidable distortions. In this particular case, Connelly sees the climax of God’s story as God’s fulfilling his role as kind, generous Uncle Tom, providing a sudden, unearned, and easy salvation for a people who were never fallen (since there was no Fall) and in no danger (since there is no Satan). By hiding Jesus’ suffering, and depicting De Lawd’s suffering as little more than an afternoon of indigestion, Connelly offers to his audience a religion he literally can stomach — one without suffering and, unfortunately, also without nourishment or flavor.

As the film turns away from Heaven back to the Sunday School class frame, a curiously affecting image appears. While the screenplay describes the scene as “The little boy is asleep in his grandfather’s arms, his head against the old man’s shoulder,”20 the image as filmed is much more highly charged. Their pose is an obvious pieta, with the boy taking the place of Christ and the grandfather standing in for the Madonna. The boy’s head doesn’t rest on his grandfather’s shoulder but hangs limp, as do his arms and legs, and the Sexton looks forward with a pained stoic expression. Taken as a still image out of context, one could interpret the scene as the old man holding the boy’s corpse. By bringing in such an unmistakable traditional reference, Connelly actually confuses — is the little black boy now Christ? It would seem that Connelly, liberal humanist that he is, has chosen to transfer the traditional role of Christ to the child. But if we consider the previous examples, the image can be interpreted in context; instead of suffering and death before an ultimate resurrection, Connelly’s God offers us a comfortable nap in Uncle Tom’s arms after a boring but harmless Bible lesson.

Whether Connelly succeeded in using the fantasy of simple, honest African American spirituality to salve the wounded faith of his generation — and the powerful reception of his play would suggest that his soft religion touched a nerve — we may wonder whether Connelly had the right purpose. Bogle and Ford are correct: The Green Pastures in no way resembles African American Christianity, and if we interpret it by that standard, the film is indefensibly offensive. And Cripps is correct as well: Connelly’s religious vision is insubstantial and unsatisfying. But if we choose to condemn Connelly, how should we do it? Nolan comes closest to recognizing the real failure of the film: “The point of Green Pastures is not […] whether God must learn suffering, but rather whether men may judge his fellowmen from without.”21 Nolan argues that Connelly succeeds, if in a modest way, in “[throwing] the problem [of racial oppression] back on the audience,”22 but this interpretation gives Connelly too much credit; by downplaying, and outright distorting, African American folk religion, and by side-stepping any confrontation with race problems, Connelly fails to provide any real arena for racial reconciliation, instead affirming stereotypes and making it safe for white agnostics to find solace in a forgiving Uncle Tom. But this same weakness of purpose results in an unsatisfying religious vision as well — an infantilizing and ultimately demeaning (for both white and black, for both agnostic and believer) vision that may be fit for Hollywood but not for the real world of poverty, racial oppression, lost faith, and fear that surrounded Connelly in the 1930s and still surrounds the audience of today.

  1. Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. 4th ed. (New York: Continuum, 2001), 67-69. []
  2. Cripps, Thomas, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 258. []
  3. Ibid., 261. []
  4. Phillips, John L., “Before the Colors Fade: Green Pastures Recalled,” American Heritage 21 (1970): 28-29, 74-76 (accessed September 24, 2007). []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Bogle, Toms, Coons, 6. []
  8. Cripps, Thomas, Ed The Green Pastures (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), 16. []
  9. Phillips, “Before the Colors Fade.” []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Ibid. []
  12. Ibid. []
  13. Ford, Nick Aaron, “How Genuine is The Green Pastures?,” The Phylon Quarterly 20 (1959): 68. []
  14. Bogle, Toms, Coons, 70. []
  15. Nolan, Paul, “God on Stage: A Problem in Characterization in Marc Connelly’s Green Pastures,Xavier University Studies 4 (1965), 81. []
  16. Ibid., 82. []
  17. Ford, “Genuine?,” 68. []
  18. Cripps, The Green Pastures, 194. []
  19. Ibid., 203. []
  20. Ibid., 190. []
  21. Nolan, “God on Stage,” 84. []
  22. Ibid., 83. []