Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Native Land

NATIVE LAND          B            
USA  (80 mi)  1942  d:  Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand

Democracy!  Fought for and built into the steel girders of America...

This is a rare kind of film, deserving of being placed in a time capsule of American history, as there are nuggets of information from our past that we’re not going to find anywhere else, but films like this are rarely seen by many Americans at all, but it was released shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, so it does represent a call for all American citizens to unite behind inherited concepts of freedom and liberty.  The only place you’d see a film like this today might be when screened by your local union hall, as it shows in graphic detail just how unions were targeted in the late 30’s by big business with their members shot and killed all across the land for standing up for their rights.  While it does come across as an unashamedly leftist propaganda film, where the message is pounded into the head of the viewers without a trace of subtlety, it is nonetheless unique because there are so few American films like it.  Sam Fuller’s PARK ROW (1952) comes to mind, as both are rousing pieces of flag-waving Americana, and both love those majestic shots of the Statue of Liberty as a symbolic image of freedom, but this film takes a decidedly more leftist turn.  American still photographer Paul Strand was one of the modernist artists that helped establish photography as an art form in the 20th century, where his work covered six decades, examining the human condition in a modern urban context, collecting poignant evidence of poverty among urban cultures, while working as one of the cinematographers for the Dust Bowl documentary THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS (1936).  Here he codirects, cowrites, and shoots another documentary in collaboration with Leo Hurwitz, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy period.  Made over a three year period, it is the most ambitious work from Strand’s Frontier Films Collective, and while Strand himself was never a communist, his film collective was blacklisted during the Hollywood Red Scare, branded as “subversive and un-American,” causing Strand to move to France in 1949 where he lived in quiet exile for the final 27 years of his life.  Hurwitz was also a driving force behind the Film and Photo League, which documented so much of the Depression-era struggle for a more just society, where some of the League’s footage is incorporated into the film. 

What sets this film apart is the bold narrative reading by Paul Robeson, described by Time magazine in their 1942 Review of Native Land as perhaps “the finest spoken commentary ever recorded on celluloid.”  Invoking patriotism with historical ties to Jamestown, Plymouth Rock, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Civil War, and the move to settle the Western frontier, the film originated in 1938, tentatively entitled Labor Spy, as it warns ordinary Americans not to take their freedom for granted, and while we fought against fascism in Europe, our own school history is often shamefully silent in pointing out the prevalence of fascism here at home in the heavy handed techniques used against labor organizations, where factories or large industries have consistently attempted to thwart union organizing or even union sympathizers through intimidation and force, which includes the use of the Klu Klux Klan in beatings, castration, and murder.  This film takes a look at some of the most extreme examples, pulled from the findings of the U.S. Senate’s La Follette Civil Liberties Committee between 1936 and 1940, which exposed the surveillance, physical intimidation, and other techniques used by large employers to prevent workers from organizing.  In large part dramatic reenactments, as newsreels from the era did not report these civil rights abuses to the public, we see a farmer beaten up and killed on his own land in Custer, Michigan for speaking out at a public meeting, or Arkansas sharecroppers fighting for a living wage, asking for a mere 10 cents an hour wage increase, having to meet clandestinely, but are tracked down and shot by local sheriff deputies, or a union representative is found murdered, tied in a gunnysack and left on the side of the railroad tracks.  One of the most notorious Klu Klux Klan incidents in Florida history occurred on a road north of Tampa, Florida in 1937, when labor organizer Joseph Shoemaker and his two companions, who almost defeated the Klan in the city elections, were flogged, castrated, and tarred and feathered, where all nine Klansmen indicted for murder were eventually released.   

The notion of infiltrating union organizations by paying off informers was one of the most common and effective practices of the era, where these spies (seen brutalized with their lives threatened, where the corporate thugs casually claim “we do this every day of the week”) would report back to the corporations when meetings were going to take place, what actions transpired, providing a list of members, where subsequently every single one on the membership list would be fired.  In addition to these episodic reenactments, the film also includes vintage footage of labor riots, including a 1937 Memorial Day march of 2000 workers approaching a Chicago steel plant, where despite securing a permit, the police blocked the marchers and began opening fire into the fleeing crowds, where ten people were found dead afterwards, all shot in the back trying to get away.  This footage never made it into the newsreels that played in movie houses and served as one of the main sources for news in its day.  Ironically, the film was originally intended to subvert the right-wing newsreel The March of Time (1935 – 1951), satirized in the News on the March newsreel segment from Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941), where the original negatives were actually destroyed during the McCarthy witch hunts, labeled “communist propaganda” by the FBI and the film was suppressed for twenty years, where the public was not allowed to see the film until the rights were repurchased by Hurwitz in the 60’s, where it was eventually restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, returning to circulation in 1974. 

While the overall emphasis of the film to combat these atrocities was for workers to organize and gain strength in numbers, history has shown exactly the opposite has happened, as union membership has dwindled.  Ironically, the Red Scare of the 50’s has to be deemed an unqualified success for the union busters, whether intentional or not, as it shifted the numbers on union affiliation, reaching a peak in 1954 when almost 35% of workers belonged to a union, while today it’s closer to 12%.  While this is one of the first overtly political documentaries produced in the United States, part of its legendary status is the lackluster reponse and its fall to relative obscurity.  After the war, McCarthyism swept through the American consciousness, and those leftist Americans dedicated to social change were silenced, including Paul Robeson, one of the few voices in America encouraging President Truman to enact legislation to abolish lynching in America, for instance, coming after four more blacks in the South were lynched in 1946, so when Truman refused, Robeson called upon all Americans to demand in the late 1940’s that Congress pass civil rights legislation.  Instead, Robeson, and others, were singled out for their particular brand of patriotism, which was relabeled subversive and un-American, where Robeson was blacklisted and stripped of his passport in 1950.  Today, Robeson stands as a pillor of courage and freedom for standing up to this scourge of mass hysteria, where much of the predominate themes raised by the film about corporate fascism threatening our liberties show how capitalism’s war against the common man is just as relevant today.

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