THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE NEGRO SOLDIER”

BOOTLEG FILES 188: “The Negro Soldier” (1944 propaganda film created by the U.S. Army).

LAST SEEN: Available for online viewing at several sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only as a public domain dupe.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: The film is painful to watch.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: No, it’s stuck forever in PD hell.

During World War II, the American military effort was seriously disfigured due to the nation’s cruel and hostile policies regarding racial segregation. African-Americans who responded to the defense of their country found themselves in humiliating and often violent situations. Kept apart from their white peers and antagonized by both the military hierarchy and the Jim Crow environment that surrounded the Southern bases where they were based, it often seemed that the enemy of the African-American soldiers was not based on the far side of the Atlantic or the Pacific – rather, it was at home in the guise of white America.

Contrary to popular belief, African-Americans did not passively accept their third class citizen standing during wartime. Despite media censorship designed to squash inklings of a fragmented home front, civil rights leaders and the troops themselves continuously and angrily pressed for fair treatment and a greater level of participation in the actual frontline battles.

The sensitivity of the matter resulted in a decision by the War Department (the forerunner of today’s Department of Defense) to create a propagandistic documentary designed to boost the perceived value of the African-American contribution to the wartime effort. The resulting film, however, turned out to be a hideous work of intellectual dishonesty: “The Negro Soldier,” a 1944 production that (pardon the pun) white-washed not only the state of race relations during that era, but also shamelessly rewrote American history to create a utopian environment where racism never existed.

From the beginning, “The Negro Soldier” was a troubled production. Frank Capra, who was the head of the War Department’s film endeavors (his “Why We Fight” series helped ready the nation for the conflict), was reluctant to pursue this project despite a direct order from General George C. Marshall to create a movie on this subject. Whether his decision was based on blatant racism or whether he felt the film was irrelevant is not clear, but Capra wanted nothing to do with the production and shucked the directing responsibility to Stuart Heisler. But getting the film started was a major hassle, as few people in the government or in the film industry wanted to push this project forward. At one point Heisler and his cinematographer, Paul Vogel, had to sneak off with a camera from Universal Pictures in order to shoot the picture.

“The Negro Soldier” opens in an all-black church. After the choir sings a comforting hymn, a minister begins a sermon paying tribute to the congregation members who are currently in service. The minister then begins reading from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” to emphasize the racist philosophies that drive Nazism (Hitler referred to blacks as “half-apes”). At first, this seems like a sincere and intelligent way to present the subject.

The film then goes back to the American Revolution to show African-American contributions to the nation’s many military struggles. Beginning with Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre, the film highlights several black heroes of the Revolution and the later War of 1812.

Then the film does a hopscotch to the Civil War, which is presented in 15 seconds. Then it focuses on the taming of the Wild West. And then…uh, aren’t we forgetting something in this history lesson? Yes, “The Negro Soldier” blithely fails to mention slavery. As the film spins American history, blacks and whites lived in the pre-Civil War years as equals in an integrated society. We literally see black men and white men, in early 19th century costumes, working together on industrial and agricultural projects. The film gives no reason for the Civil War’s happening and it never mentions the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It also never mentions Jim Crow or Plessy v. Ferguson, but that’s another matter.

The military history lesson fails to mention the celebrated Buffalo Soldiers, but it does provide citations of African-American soldiers who performed above and beyond the call of duty in the Spanish-American War and World War I. At no time in the film is there mention that black soldiers served in racially segregated units.

The film then traces contemporary African-American achievement by showing a number of prominent people from various professions. None of these people are identified by name, although it is easy enough to identify the surgeon Dr. Charles Drew and the contralto Marian Anderson. There is also a lengthy clip (complete with the original narration) from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” that shows the victories of Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics. This clip was clearly bootlegged, as “Olympia” was copyright-protected.

The film then abruptly switches to the present-day Army. From here, it becomes even more ridiculous. The military induction and processing system is presented as a racially integrated endeavor, with blacks and whites freely intermingling. From there, the black soldiers are abruptly shown at a blacks-only training base. There is also a blacks-only USO canteen sequence.

“The Negro Soldier” avoids any mention of black combat efforts on the frontline – which is understandable, since at the time when the film was shot (1942 and 1943), blacks were kept out of combat. The fabled Tuskegee Airmen are shown in training, but the film reminds us they are only in training and have yet to go into battle.

The film keeps cutting back to the church setting, where at one point a woman from the congregation rises to read a letter from her son in the Army. The letter details how the young man is being fast-tracked for officer’s training – but, of course, the film never mentions that officer opportunities for African-Americans were relatively scarce in the World War II military.

“The Negro Soldier” was first shown to black troops in January 1944. The reaction was, at best, peculiar – according to Time Magazine, the soldiers watched the fractured history lesson in shocked silence, but afterwards requested that the film be shown to white audiences. Despite its many flaws, the black troops felt satisfied that the film did not present them as Stepin Fetchit-style fools – rather, it reaffirmed their patriotism and their willingness to go into battle.

“The Negro Soldier” experienced many problems in its distribution. During wartime, the Hollywood studios volunteered to release War Department productions to theaters. But no studio wanted to touch this film, thus requiring the War Department to play distributor and release the movie itself. The theatrical release, however, was severely limited. It only played in approximately 1,800 theaters (there were about 13,000 cinemas in the U.S. at the time); it was also made available to church groups, unions and schools that were open to racially inclusive policies. But for the most part, the majority of white America never saw the film.

Reviews of “The Negro Soldier” were cautious – there was praise for the concept, but not the execution. The New York Times diplomatically noted: “It is to be noted that it very discreetly avoids the more realistic race problems which are generally recognized today. It definitely sugar coats an issue which is broader than the Negro’s part in the war. For this reason, it is questionable whether the purpose which it is intended now to serve publicly may not be defeated by the films own limitations and lacks.”

Time Magazine was even more blunt: “As anyone can see who knows or cares anything about the seriousness of the subject, the makers of the film have not included any of the dynamite implicit in a truly forthright treatment of the subject. There is no mention of segregation, of friction between Negro soldiers and white soldiers and civilians.”

Racial segregation in the armed forces continued throughout World War II; it was not until 1948 when President Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military.

“The Negro Soldier,” as with all War Department films, did not have a copyright and has thus been condemned to circulate forever as a public domain title. Crappy dupes from 16mm prints have been available for years from low-level distributors specializing in PD movies. As it is an “orphan film,” no one is interested in paying for a digital restoration.

While it may have been conceived with the best of intentions, in retrospect “The Negro Soldier” is an unconscionable fraud. Its value only comes as a sad reminder of America’s inability to look at the state of race relations and acknowledge deep-rooted problems – a situation that, sadly, is just as real today as it was in 1944.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at
Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on July 6, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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