What’s more patriotic than hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet? Why, 1942’s left-wing documentary Native Land, of course. Produced by independent outfit Frontier Films and narrated by Paul Robeson, this remarkable piece of agit-prop comes to Pacific Film Archive at 7:00pm on Sunday, October 2nd as part of UCLA’s Festival of Preservation.
Directed by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand (who had cut their cinematic teeth together on Pare Lorentz’s agrarian documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains in 1936), Native Land begins with a hyperbolic title card: “Since the founding of our country the American people have had to fight for their freedom in every generation.” It’s an arguable assertion, but one the filmmakers rely upon to make their case—that the “fascist minded on our own soil” are once again on the march.
Enter Robeson, who offers an extremely brief history of the last three hundred years. Over beautiful black-and-white land and seascapes, Robeson relates the American story from the perspective of “we, the plain people”. From the get-go, the film taps into mainstream veins of American mythology: this is the land of the free and home of the brave; the land of opportunity where anyone can make good.
Robeson says nothing of slavery or of the extermination of the Native Americans, while scenes of billowing smokestacks and forest clear-cutting are associated with freedom. His narration is accompanied by the standard visual patriotic iconography: Lady Liberty, Old Glory and the founding fathers. So far, there’s nothing here the Tea Party wouldn’t endorse in a heartbeat.
Lesson over, the film then switches to docudrama format, recreating a series of events from the previous decade: the beating of a Michigan farmer who spoke out of turn at a meeting, the murder of a Chicago union organizer, an attack on a group of integrated Arkansas sharecroppers, and a company’s attempts to stymie its workers’ organization efforts.
As Robeson eloquently states, unions are the new pioneers who put the Bill of Rights into action, delivering bread and butter, old-age pensions, health insurance, and a 40-hour work week. Robeson declares that union organization is “a new Declaration of Independence for the people.” This is the point where Ron Paul ups and leaves the auditorium.
Native Land concludes with its most powerful segments: still shocking footage of anti-union violence by hired thugs, Pinkertons, and police (including the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937), a recreation of a Klan-led tar and feathering, and the funeral of a man murdered for his union work. Events such as these were, of course, fresh in the minds of 1942 audiences, and must have been bitter and sharp reminders of Depression days only recently passed.
Considering the straitened circumstances in which it was produced, Native Land looks tremendous. Some of the cinematography is as good as, and frequently better than, that of big studio productions of the period (and I include Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane in that estimation). Robeson gets to sing, and the acting is generally excellent. Among the cast are future blacklist victims Howard Da Silva (here spelled DaSylva) and Art Smith (so good as dipsy Doc Walter in 1947’s Brute Force), both, ironically, playing company stooges trying to stymie the union movement.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Native Land, however, is its discussion of the U.S. Senate’s La Follette Committee. After an exhaustive investigation in the late 1930s, the Committee revealed a Big Business-funded conspiracy to attack union workers, stockpile firearms and ammunition, and produce propaganda to undermine New Deal legislation. Today, of course, we call that mainstream politics.
A Berkeley festival in its 20th year
Encompassing a very full schedule of over 50 films, this year’s festival promises a cornucopia of full-length features and short subjects you won’t see anywhere else.
For more information, visit the Festival website.