Need for blacks and whites to come together

The Negro Soldier

Introduction

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The Frank Capra film The Negro Soldier (1944) was a wartime propaganda film produced by the U.S. Army in alliance with famed Hollywood director Frank Capra for the purpose of targeting African Americans and getting them to join Army and fight against the liberty-hating Germans. The film provided a positive example African American heroism as told through the preaching of the film’s narrator, Moss—an African American minister, who speaks eloquently in his church before his congregation of the need for the African American community to stand up for American values against those who oppose them. The film shows sequences of African American heroism to reinforce the preaching of Moss, who quotes Mein Kampf to stir up feelings of righteous indignation, and who describes how blacks throughout time and even now have stood up to oppose tyranny—from Crispus Attucks to boxer Joe Louis. The film concludes with the congregation rising to sing its support for the soldiers. Socially speaking, the film was a timely way for African Americans to experience important, but very limited, racial equality in the United States during WWII, as it showed whites and blacks coming together as a unit to oppose the Germans. In this manner the film can be seen as a stepping stone towards racial equality; but at the same time it was not exactly the “cure” to racism. This paper will describe a) how the film helped alleviate some of the racial tension in the country by creating a better and more positive image of African Americans in the mainstream cinema; and b) how the film was, however, ultimately an act of manipulation that aimed at encouraging African Americans to rally behind the WWII war effort and fight for the same country that still largely enshrined Jim Crow laws throughout a substantial portion of the country. The first part of this essay describes the film’s positive effects; the second part of the essay addresses the film’s underlying manipulative and exploitive nature.

Part I

Prior to Capra’s film, African Americans were see in films primarily as black stereotypes, characters used most often for comic relief.[footnoteRef:2] They were not taken seriously or used much for dramatic effect; rather, they were depicted as clownish and goofy: they “shuffled, sang, and danced” and were unsophisticated, unequal bit players in white-dominated films. For example, in the film An Interrupted Crap Game (1903), the African American characters engaged in buffoonery to make the audience though they demeaned the dignity of their own African American community in objective terms. Moreover, films like The Nigger (1916) and The Bride of Hate (1917) showed how terrible it was for blacks and whites to mix.[footnoteRef:3] Thus, the justification for segregation was perpetuated in the cinema. Cinema made African Americans seem like grotesque caricatures of humankind—more like apes than men, which only served to foster greater and worse racial prejudice in the country. Hollywood depicted blacks as being “hyper-sexualized” deviants, lazy good-for-nothings, inarticulate and apish, with eyeballs constantly bugged out and bulging as though they could not understand a thing going on in the world.[footnoteRef:4] The images of African Africans in film were a reflection of what was going on in America in terms of racism, discrimination, and segregation. Prior to Capra’s film, Hollywood mainly focused on depicting blacks as non-threatening—“eating watermelons, loafing, singing and dancing.”[footnoteRef:5] The idea of them being armed and able to engage in real combat alongside whites was the furthest thing from Hollywood’s mind. As the heart of the culture industry in America, Hollywood’s main interest was in propagating the kind of prejudicial view that most audiences would welcome. [2: Kathleen M. German, Promises of Citizenship (University Press of Mississippi, 2017), 41.] [3: Ibid, 49.] [4: Ibid, 51.] [5: Ibid, 58.]

However, with Capra’s The Negro Soldier, the African American was at last “presented with dignity, converting decades of demeaning images.”[footnoteRef:6] The need for blacks and whites to come together at last as one was made apparent. In this sense, Capra’s film was a turning point in the American film industry. The image of the African American suddenly evolved—and though it was the only military film in its time that tried to weave the African American into the fabric of American life, its use of positive black images did much to transform the dynamic of race in film. As Cripps explains, after 1945, it was difficult for audiences to remember that race movies used to be a staple of the American scene.[footnoteRef:7] By setting the film in a small church with the well-spoken and articulate African American preacher Pastor Moss at the head of the congregation, The Negro Soldier rejected the racial stereotypes that had persisted in American cinema for decades: the Negro at the heart of this film was serious-minded, eloquent and knowledgeable. The film used a succession of images to help reinforce the idea of equality—something no film prior had done. For example, at the 9:36 mark, the film shows one black and one white male both working in unison on a railroad, working as one on the same project for the greater good. At the 22 minute mark, the film fades from white officers with a commanding presence to black officers with the same commanding presence, giving each equal screen time to demonstrate their equality. The film does not jump from white officer to white officer, or black officer to black officer, but rather consciously goes from white to black with equal screen time for both. The camera technique itself was promoting the concept of racial equality. The Negro Soldier thus offered a new identity to African Americans that had not seen before: it represented them as more human, competent, and equal to whites. [6: Ibid, 42, 66.] [7: Thomas Cripps, and David Culbert, “The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White.” American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5, Special Issue: Film and American Studies (Winter, 1979), 640.]

The change in representation was especially significant in terms of the military. In the film, Lieutenant Robert A. Bronson’s mother stands up in Pastor Moss’s church and reads a letter that her son sent home to her: the contents of the letter reveal the story of a young black man who has learned to fend for himself and serve as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Bronson is depicted on film as living the true American life, fighting for the country, playing sports, meeting a woman, firing weapons, and doing all things patriotic. In the film, he serves as a metaphor for opportunity for all African Americans. At the 30 minute mark Bronson is shown graduating among a class of both black and white military officers—their equality unquestioned. The language of the letter, moreover, is very inclusive, with no hint of racial segregation or discrimination at all. True to the propagandistic nature of the film, Bronson even describes the military as “fun, [and] not all work.”[footnoteRef:8] The point is, however, that Bronson is shown to be a leader—and black—a crucial cinematic revolution.[footnoteRef:9] But as Frederick Douglass said, anyone who fights for the country deserves American citizenship: the film shows that Bronson has earned his. [8: Frank Capra, The Negro Soldier (War Activities Committee of the Motion Pictures Industry, 1944).] [9: Cripps and Culbert, 626-7.]

The Negro Soldier was shown among the civilians in America as a tool to teach “inter-cultural education” and ranked 3rd out of 17 films that were studied.[footnoteRef:10] This shows the great response of the film among the populace. The film surely resonated well with white American civilians because there was a demand in over 16,000 theatres to have the film shown in public.[footnoteRef:11] Americans, for the first time, saw a new side to the African American on the silver screen. [10: Ibid, 635.] [11: German, 70-1.]

Part II

Despite the positive social and cultural impact of The Negro Soldier, a great many negatives still existed. For example, the film did not exactly call for an end to discrimination and segregation at home—but rather for blacks to fight with whites to oppose discrimination and segregation abroad in Europe. In other words, there was an apparent hypocrisy at the heart of the film’s message. Moreover, Moss himself takes part in the manipulation of details to glorify the war, calling it “a battle between nation and nation,” as opposed to a battle between man and man.[footnoteRef:12] The film strategically depicts the Germans blowing up an African American monument commemorating the black soldiers who fought in France in WW1 to show how the Germans were racist. The film completely ignores the Jim Crow laws in the U.S. that were still in effect. Moss artfully states that “the liberty of the whole earth depends on this contest,” but makes no mention of the lack of liberty that blacks had at the time in their own homeland. One scene in the film was meant to be cut—a white female nurse treating a wounded black soldier: it was deemed too suggestive and seemed to hint at miscegenation.[footnoteRef:13] Another scene showed Bronson in his barracks making his bed—surrounded only by other blacks and now whites: an unintentional glimpse into the reality that Jim Crow even existed in the Army. [12: Capra.] [13: Cripps and Culbert, 628-630.]

Thus, the film was meant to “overcome racial tensions by uniting all Americans behind the war effort, while postponing African American demands for immediate equality.”[footnoteRef:14] It wanted blacks to go fight for Uncle Sam abroad while ignoring their own lack of freedoms and equality at home. The film should have been taken as a highly offensive slap in the face to all free-thinking people at the time—but instead it was hyped for finally giving the African American his respectful due. And just as in the Civil War, the black community was only given respect when it served the purposes of old white Uncle Sam—and the purpose was always the same: more warm bodies to fuel the war machine. The Negro Soldier was essentially an excuse to keep from facing domestic racial issues for a certain period of time by manipulating black people into wanting to join the U.S. Army and win their “dignity.” [14: German, 67.]

Conclusion

In the final analysis, what was the message that the film was trying to portray? Was it authentic? Were the creators of the film true believers in the equality of African Americans and white people in the Army, or was this film an example of pure propaganda and manipulation? The fact is that the film represented American hypocrisy at its finest: it threw a bone to the African American community after long last—not because it felt bad about decades of Jim Crow or the centuries of slavery that preceded it—but because the African American was now “useful” to the government. It was no more and no less. Yes, the film portrayed blacks positively for once—but the motivation in doing so was not to promote the idea of equality or civil rights. The coming Civil Rights Movement would show as much—but perhaps one of the unintended consequences of the film was that it did inspire African Americans to stand up—and fight for liberty—at home.

Bibliography

Capra, Frank. The Negro Soldier. War Activities Committee of the Motion Pictures

Industry, 1944.

Cripps, Thomas and and David Culbert. “The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in

Black and White.” American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5, Special Issue: Film and American Studies (Winter, 1979), pp. 616-640: The Josh Hopkins University Press.

German, Kathleen M. Promises of Citizenship: Film Recruitment of African Americans

in World War 2. University Press of Mississippi, 2017.

 

 


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