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Native Land – A Portrait of Labor’s Fight

A Movie Review

(25 May 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 21, 25 May 1942, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Although it is more than a week since the writer has seen this documentary film based on the 1938 Senate Civil Rights Committee testimony on boss terror in this country, one of its episodes lives in mind as though experienced in real life.

Vigilantes in Arkansas in 1936 have broken up a sharecroppers’ meeting and driven into the swamps a Negro and. an older white cropper. The Negro has been wounded. The white cropper tries to ease him. When twilight comes, they begin to think of going home, so the white man crawls up to the highway to see the lay of the land. It seems to him that the road is clear. He helps the Negro to his feet, props him against his own body and thus they start homeward in the dusk. The Negro’s face is transparent with the pain of persecution, and the ache in his body. Like a father or a big brother, the white cropper smilingly encourages him onward. Thus , walking homeward, together, black and white brothers in bondage, are mowed down by the machine gun bullets of an ambushed vigilante.

The photographer and directors fully understood the symbolic and actual beauty of the episode as well as its horror and suspense, and gave it all it needed to make it unforgettable. Such feelingful direction throughout the film, by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, with matching photography by Mr. Strand, creates the stir and impact on the mind and emotions that the material used, deserves.

Just People on the Screen

The acting is so unstrained and lifelike that one forgets to appraise it as acting. There are just people on the screen. It is just a Michigan farmer who in 1934 spoke up for farmers’ unity and was found dead by his wife a few minutes after a visit by strangers in a resplendent automobile. They are just three human beings tortured by the Ku Klux Klan in “democratic” Florida in 1935 because their politics did not please the powers behind the Klan. They are just working stiffs thrown out of their jobs because of union activity after a rat in their ranks turns the union membership book over to the industrial spying company employed by the boss to bust the union. It is just a friendly grocer ordered out of town by a thug, because he contributed to the strike fund. And they are just women and children weeping at the graves of their husbands and fathers shot in the back by “law and order” in the 1937 Memorial Day massacre of strikers in Chicago.

The cumulative effect of the film is even greater than the sum of these gripping incidents. This is accomplished by the narrative written by David Wolff and beautifully spoken by Paul Robeson, who also contributes some fine singing. The narrative tells of the private armies, private arsenals and propaganda of the “fascist-minded”, of the ruthless armed company deputies; of the utter contempt for human life of those for whom “the open shop is the American way.”

The narrative unfortunately is not all factual. The film is as unequivocal an indictment of “American democracy” – better known to farmers, sharecroppers and workers as boss rule – as has ever been presented. Yet the narrative – obviously for timely propaganda purposes – would have the audience believe that the bill of rights exists for the workers anyway. Although it has been enjoyed by rniliant workers from the hard end of a nightstick or the shooting end of a revolver or machine gun, Mr. Wolff assures us that it has been built into the very girders of the skyscrapers. He forgot to write at this point that the girders and the skyscrapers are owned by the “interests” exposed by the film, that in them the industrial spy companies have offices, that in them the boards of directors meet to count profits, and map out campaigns against labor. If the bill of rights has been built into the girders of skyscrapers, the film proves that it has been kept prisoner there.

Role of the “Founding Fathers”

Also, to serve the purposes of timely propaganda, the narrative constantly refers to the “Founding Fathers” as if they were the patrons of the present-day struggles of the farmers, sharecroppers and workers. Naturally no mention is made of the historic fact that there were plenty of labor-haters among the “Founding Fathers,” whose idea was that “liberty, freedom, democracy” should function primarily for the benefit of the capitalist class.

The acme of the ridiculous is reached in the epilogue, Paul Robeson appears on the screen to assure the audience that the bitter class struggle so stirringly; filmed has today been ended by “national unity.” All of a sudden there are no more “fascist-minded interests” in America. They are all in Germany and Japan. Would you believe it – since 1938, when a Senate committee exposed their vile practices, they have turned over a new leaf and now clasp the hand of labor in brotherly love!

However, this inept attempt to vitiate the effect of what preceded fails. The final scene, and not the epilogue, stands out as the real conclusion. It is the burial of the victims of the Memorial Day massacre in Chicago. Women and children are weeping, while the men stand grim and silent. A worker speaks a few words in farewell to his fallen brothers. He says: “We don’t forget that!”

The reviews of the film in the boss press prove that this worker’s simple pledge, “We don’t forget that!” is much more powerful than Robeson’s concluding verbiage. The New York Sun tries very hard to discourage the reader from seeing the film by describing it as amateurish, tiring, boring. The Daily News thinks: “Since it serves only to revive the wrongs inflicted upon the ‘little people,’ there seems little argument for it release.” The New York Times comments: “And one might also inquire whether a picture of this sort is not disturbing to national unity at this time.”

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