On Native Land

Recently I have begun a project that should be of some interest to radicals, particularly film buffs like me. I will be creating a database of links to radical films that can be seen on the Internet for free, or for a nominal fee. Most of these films will be viewable on Youtube but one that I saw this week is available on veoh.com, a Video streaming website that is part of qlipso.com, a social networking company that was launched out of Israel. My advice is to not let this stand in the way of watching “Native Land”, a 1942 documentary co-directed by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, two leading figures in the Communist Party-led cultural front that was so brilliantly analyzed in Michael Denning’s “The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century”.

The film was a virtual who’s who of the CP artistic community. In addition to Hurwitz, who was blacklisted during the 1950s, and photographer Paul Strand, who was not a party member but embodied their esthetic, it featured Paul Robeson as narrator and music by Marc Blitzstein best known for his musical play “The Cradle Will Rock” that was directed by Orson Welles. (In 1999 Tim Robbins directed a serviceable film based on the play’s difficulties getting staged.)

“Native Land” consists of a series of dramatic reenactments of how corporate America used gun-thugs and spies to crush the trade union movement, especially in the Deep South. The technique might be familiar to you if you’ve seen Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” or Andrew Jarecki’s “The Jinx”, which had actors reprising the alleged crimes of real estate heir Robert Durst. In one reenactment, Howard Da Silva plays a snitch named Jim hired by the bosses to secretly take down the names of trade union members for blacklisting purposes. (This was a time when the CIO was nothing close to the immensely powerful machine it would become.) There was an immense irony in this since Da Silva was a CP’er who was blacklisted in the 1950s. Jim’s fellow spy was played by Art Smith, another victim of the witch-hunt whose career effectively came to an end in1952.

In addition to the reenactments, there is powerful footage of cop and private military attacks on striking workers from newsreels of the period, including the Memorial Day massacre of 1937 in which Chicago cops murdered 10 protesters supporting a strike against Republic Steel. The film, which was a product of the popular front between the Democrats and the Communist Party, understandably but unforgivingly neglected to mention FDR’s comment about this confrontation between labor and capital: “The majority of people are saying just one thing, ′A plague on both your houses′”.

One of the more remarkable moments of the film is a sermon by an unnamed priest who will remind you of any number of latter-day liberation theology exponents, including the current head of the Catholic Church. It is none other than Reverend Charles Webber who was a national organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in Richmond, Virginia in 1935 and a lifelong labor advocate.

Esthetically, the film will remind you of “The Plow that Broke the Plains”, a much more famous work from the period directed by Pare Lorentz, the most influential documentary filmmaker in the 1930s and 40s. Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand served as cinematographers on that film and the affinity cannot be missed. Both films are distinguished by iconic landscapes that are meant to capture the heart and soul of America as well as the humble working people and farmers that were struggling to transform it. In “The Plow that Broke the Plains”, the villain that stands in the way of progress is the dust bowl while in “Native Land” it is the boss, the cops and Pinkerton detectives.

You will also hear affinities between the film scores. For Lorentz’s film, Virgil Thompson wrote a score that was a second cousin to Aaron Copland’s folkish style, one that had an influence on latter-day film composers such as Elmer Bernstein. Blitzstein’s score was written for popular tastes unlike “The Cradle Will Rock” that shared Kurt Weill’s acerbic and mocking quality.


Still from “Native Land.”

All of the incidents depicted in the film were based on the findings of the Senate Subcommittee Investigating Free Speech and Labor, better known as the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee. Robert La Follette Jr. was a Republican from Wisconsin who also belonged to the Progressive Party that was virtually synonymous with his father Robert La Follette who ran on the Progressive Party ticket in 1924 on a pro-labor and pro-civil rights program that was in many ways to the left of Debs’s Socialist Party according to historian Mark Lause. This was lost on the Comintern that labeled the Progressives as a pro-capitalist party.

A January 31, 1937 N.Y. Times article on the work of the La Follette committee will give you a feel for the repressive conditions trade unionists and the left had to deal with. The TCI referred to below is the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, a subsidiary of US Steel:

Witnesses testified in connection with the flogging of a member of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners who went to Birmingham to secure the release of a Communist alleged to have been railroaded to a chain gang. A State police officer corroborated charges that the abductors and floggers had been identified but not indicted. Two of the floggers, it was said. were T. C. I. employes. They were not indicted. witnesses declared, because “the T. C. I. owns fifteen-sixteenths” of the territory around Birmingham and it would be unwise to antagonize the company.”

Long-time N.Y. Times film critic Bosley Crowther, a solid progressive who spoke out against McCarthyism, praised “Native Land” when it premiered in New York:

Manifestly, this is one of the most powerful and disturbing documentary films ever made, and certainly it will provoke much thought and controversy. For “Native Land” is a graphic presentation through re-enacted scenes of incidents of brutal violations of the American Bill of Rights as revealed in actual testimony before the Senate Civil Liberties Committee in 1938. It is, to put it bluntly, a sharp indictment of certain subversive elements in this land—elements which are never precisely identified, other than by such terms as “the big shots,” “the interests” and “powerful corporations,” but which emerge by implication as all foes of free speech, of free assembly and the active opponents of labor organization.

“Native Land” was a product of Frontier Films, a company launched by Leo Hurwitz, Paul Strand and John Henry Lawson in 1937. Lawson was one of the Hollywood Ten, whose book “Film in the Battle of Ideas” spoke for many radicals, especially me, when it declared that Hollywood “falsifies the life of American workers” and its “unwritten law decrees that only the middle and upper classes provide themes suitable for film presentation, and that workers appear on the screen only in subordinate or comic roles.”

Anybody who sees this film today will have some trouble with the fulsome patriotic effusions that serve as a kind of overture at the beginning of the film. In 1942, the CP was in full-tilt populist mode under the influence of party leader Earl Browder who believed that “Communism was 20th century Americanism”. Narrator Paul Roberson practically delivers a civics lesson on the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, eventually defending trade union rights as a civil liberty rather than a class-based necessity for the struggle against capitalism and for socialism.

Even if Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand had been more ideologically disposed to stress class questions, it is doubtful that they could have raised the money to make the film by daring to question FDR’s commitment to the trade union movement.

There were signs early on that Hurwitz and the party did not see eye to eye on aesthetic/ideological matters. As a member of the Workers Film and Photo League, Hurwitz was not exactly comfortable with an agenda that was dismissive of esthetic principles and viewed the role of the artist as one of championing social change above all. As a student of Soviet filmmaking, which had not yet been totally subordinated to Stalinist diktats, he was inspired to create a group called Nykino that put art and politics on the same level and that eventually evolved into Frontier Films. It was not well-received by the WFPL, according to an informative Wikipedia article.

Paul Strand was an ideal partner for Hurwitz, having played a role alongside Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz in turning photography into an art form. Like many others who began as a modernist, Strand embraced radical politics because it was clear at the time that capitalism was the enemy of culture as well as of social justice. Throughout his life, he collaborated closely with people on the left, from Alger Hiss to Basil Davidson, the celebrated Africa historian.

If there’s any work that convey’s Paul Strand’s esthetic, both in his video and still photography, it is the celebrated “Young Boy, Gondeville, France” that was shot in 1951 after Strand had left the witch hunt behind him. The photo is both formally elegant and politically suggestive of a young man glaring at the injustice of wage labor. If the photo appeals to you, waste no time in seeing “Native Land”, a film that joins “Salt of the Earth” as a work of art that shows the CP cultural front at its best.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.



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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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