For a number of reasons, I had some hesitation about including Native Land in our series. First of all, with two directors, it tends to undermine the argument that film art is a medium with a single primary creator. I did include Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (Grass, King Kong), however, who were mostly joined at the hip during their directorial careers. Leo Hurwitz (1909–1991) and Paul Strand (1890–1976) essentially only collaborated as directors on this one film, although they came together as part of the progressive collective Frontier Films.
If it seems that I have only grudgingly included documentaries in this series, I must confess to a certain prejudice in favor of films that are likely to reach a wider theatrical audience and that are products of filmmakers who creatively engender their own images, not just waiting for something to happen or using found footage or talking heads. Only rarely, in my judgment, does a documentary evoke the emotional resonance that seems to me the essence of the highest forms of cinema. I would cite Alain Resnais’s Nuit et Bruillard (Night and Fog) as the exception that proves the rule.
The beating heart of Native Land is the off-screen audio presence of the great Paul Robeson (1898–1976). If I may be permitted a slight digression, I consider Robeson to be one of America’s greatest heroes. At Rutgers, a half-century ago, I made an effort to get the university to write Robeson (All-American football player and Phi Beta Kappa) back into its history. This raised eyebrows but failed at the time. Yet, in subsequent decades, he has been recognized and honored. The great singer and social activist never had a chance to make the kind of movies he wanted to make, but Native Land literally gave him a voice. I cannot fully subscribe to the epitaph that appears on his upstate New York tombstone (“The artist must fight for freedom or slavery”) because too many of the greatest film artists (Max Ophuls, F. W. Murnau, Josef von Sternberg, Buster Keaton, to name a few) seemed to have no politics at all, but I cannot but admire Robeson’s commitment. One of the reasons it was so gratifying to organize the Museum’s recent Charles Burnett retrospective was that the director seemed to be following in Robeson’s footsteps.
Native Land is important, too, as a counterweight to films like the Why We Fight series (two episodes of which were shown last week). Yes, it’s terrific we won the war, but America and the movies have a lot to live down, from genocide, slavery, and bigotry to the films that glorified and accepted them. It was no accident that the greatest Hollywood director, John Ford, made Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn late in his career to enter the history books with a clearer conscience.
Both Strand and Hurwitz were dedicated men of the Left and, like Robeson, victims of the McCarthy era. Strand, one of the premiere still photographers of the 20th century, made (with painter Charles Sheeler) one of the first poetic documentaries, Manhatta, which influenced such documentarians as Robert Flaherty, Joris Ivens, Alberto Cavalcanti, Walter Ruttmann, and (likely) Dziga Vertov. He also worked, with Fred Zinnemann, on the beautiful Redes (The Wave), The Plow That Broke the Plains (directed by Pare Lorentz), Heart of Spain (directed by Herbert Kline), Return to Life (directed by Kline and Henri Cartier-Bresson), and China Strikes Back. Hurwitz worked on several of the same projects, but his most famous film as a director (other than Native Land) was 1948’s Strange Victory, a feature-length documentary that called attention to the fact that although we whipped fascism abroad, it still lingered forcefully in America. Sixty-three years later, it still lingers. Hurwitz had also been a driving force behind the Film and Photo League, which documented so much of the Depression-era struggle for a more just society. Some of the League’s footage was incorporated into Native Land. I am proud to say that the Museum has collected, exhibited, and circulated much of the output of both directors.
Native Land itself, lacking major studio production values, came out at precisely the wrong time (just after Pearl Harbor) for a scathing questioning of American values and history. It was suppressed for 20 years, but today its depiction of capitalism’s war on the common man makes it fresh and extremely relevant. As Woodrow Wilson was impressed by a screening in the White House of D. W. Griffith’s hateful The Birth of a Nation in 1915, perhaps the time has come for Barack Obama to take a look at the inspiring Native Land.