Breaking Glass

And Pastures New

Suppose you had to choose the single motion picture that dealt most seriously and challengingly with religious matters.  What might it be?  Offhand, I can think of a dozen or so possible answers from various countries, and probably most cinema-literate people would agree on at least a common short list.  It’s a reasonable bet, though, that few such lists would include one example of an American film that really should demand our attention and, I would argue, our profound respect, and that is the 1936 film The Green Pastures.  Controversial for its portrayal of black Americans, the film has become so sensitive that it has been largely confined to the same historical vault for the politically and culturally incorrect as the old-time minstrel show.  And that is a tragedy, because this is not just a major piece of American culture, but a thoughtful contribution to popular theology.

To begin with, some background.  In 1928, Roark Bradford wrote the story collection Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, depicting the Old Testament stories as imagined through the eyes of a young black girl in New Orleans.  In 1930, Marc Connelly adapted the stories as a hugely popular Broadway play under the title The Green Pastures, which in turn became the 1936 film.  The film retold the stories of the Old Testament as conceived by children in a Southern...

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