The Negro Soldier
The Negro Soldier is a 1944 documentary created by the United States Army during World War II. The film was produced by Frank Capra as a follow up to his successful film series Why We Fight. The army used this film as propaganda to convince Black Americans to enlist in the army and fight in the war. Most people regarded the film very highly, some going as far as to say that The Negro Soldier was "one of the finest things that ever happened to America". Due to both high reviews and great cinematography, The Negro Soldier proved to be a breakout film influencing army members and civilians of all races. In 2011, it was chosen to be preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
|The Negro Soldier|
|Directed by||Stuart Heisler|
|Produced by||Frank Capra|
United States Department of War
|Written by||Carlton Moss|
George Washington Carver
Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
|Music by||Albert Glasser|
|Cinematography||CPO Alan Q. Thompson|
Capt. Horace Woodard
Lt. Paul C. Vogel
|Distributed by||War Activities Committee of the Motion Pictures Industry|
During World War II, Nazi Germany threatened to take over Europe, North Africa and the Near East. The United States Army was looking for men to enlist. Although the U.S. army was officially committed to practicing segregation, they looked to African Americans to add manpower to the group. Social scientists of the time argued that the mass media were the best method of instilling a message within people and pushing them to act towards a common goal.
The army selected Frank Capra to head the effort to create morale films that were designed to build enthusiasm for war purposes. Capra was an immigrant from Sicily, who began his career in Hollywood working on humorous short films. However, he went on to create many well-known films that made it big in the box office. In March 1942, Capra began brainstorming The Negro Soldier. He asked different researchers to inform him about what was okay and not okay when it came to creating a cinematic depiction of African Americans. These researchers came up with a list of cautions, some of which included “avoid stereotypes such as the Negroes’ alleged affinity for watermelon or pork; also avoid strong images of racial identity (‘play down colored soldiers more Negroid in appearance’ and omit ‘Lincoln, emancipation, or any race leaders or friends of the Negro’)”. With these cautions in mind, the writer Marc Connelly created the first script for The Negro Soldier, with the same sympathetic treatment for Negro themes that he had used in his earlier work, The Green Pastures. Connelly’s first script ended up being too dramatic for the Army’s tastes. In response, Ben Hecht and Jo Swerling prepared a second draft of the movie; however, it too was rejected because the Army insisted the movie be more of a documentary. Ultimately, Carlton Moss was hired to write the movie and Stuart Heisler became director. Moss attended Columbia University and worked for the Federal Theater Project. Both Moss and Heisler worked very well together.
The film began shooting in 1943. The movie crew traveled the United States, visiting over 19 different army posts. The final movie totaled 43 minutes long and received official support in 1944. At first, The Negro Soldier was intended for only African American troops; however, the creators of the film decided that they wanted to distribute the film to a wider military and civil audience. Nobody was certain what the impact of the film would have on viewers, and many people feared that African Americans would have a negative response to the film. However, when the first African American troops saw the film, they insisted that all African American troops should see it. Furthermore, after both African Americans and whites were surveyed about their response to the film, the filmmakers were shocked when over 80% of the white population thought the film should be shown to both black and white troops, as well as white civilians.
Eventually, replacement centers all over the United States required their troops to watch The Negro Soldier. Almost all black Army members and Air Corps members saw the film, and many white soldiers watched the film during orientation programs. Although the film had been made solely for a military audience, Capra and the rest of the film crew wanted to distribute the film commercially all over the United States as well. Many people gave the film great reviews and praised the film very highly; however, the film did not do well commercially as shown in theatres. The 43-minute length of the film made it awkward to show alongside typical films of the time that were longer than one hour. All the while, a filmmaker named Jack Goldberg was suing Capra and The Negro Soldier because he believed that the film “competed unfairly” with his own film that dealt with the same race issues. Although Goldberg ended up losing this lawsuit, The Negro Soldier was never successful in theaters.
The Negro Soldier opens in a large, neo-gothic style church. From the point of view of the congregation, we see a preacher giving a sermon referring to different men in the army. The camera pans to different members of the army seated in the audience as the preacher mentions each one. This preacher, played by Carlton Moss, then launches into a speech reflecting on the achievements of African Americans over the years. Famous boxers and track stars are mentioned as defeating Germany in matches such as the Berlin Olympic Games. The preacher mentions that the Nazi army is currently at war with the entire world, and just like “Joe Louis training for the fight of his life”, the real championship will be determining which way of life will survive World War II. Moss claims that the stakes in this war are the greatest that men have ever fought for. To further stress the importance of fighting against the Nazis, Moss begins to read from the “gospel according to Hitler”. At this time Moss quotes from Hitler's book Mein Kampf, "...it is a sin against all reason to train a born half-ape until one believes one has made a lawyer of him." This quote is used to plant anger and the desire to want to fight against Hitler and his army. The congregation looks surprised to realize what the Nazis really think about the African American race.
Moss then begins to recall all of the examples of African American heroism over the history of America. For example, Moss mentions Crispus Attucks being the first to die in the Boston Massacre. These scenes from different battles and different time periods over United States history are proof that America truly owes its national freedom to all of its peoples, including the African American population. Moss goes on to mention that a statue had been built in order to commemorate all colored soldiers with the engraving, “lasting record shall be made of their unselfish devotion to duty”. Unfortunately, Moss claims, the Nazis went on to destroy the monuments in France that were devoted to African American soldiers. Furthermore in reference to America, Moss says “men of every faith, color, and town have helped to nourish it”. Moss keeps stressing the fact that African Americans played a crucial role in building the United States and making the country what it is today.
The film then shifts gears, as a woman from the congregation, a Mrs Bronson, stands up to talk about her son, who has recently joined the army. She reads a letter from him, where he tells how he has learned how to make a bed, played sports, met a girl at a dance, and trained on the battlefield. The film shows images of Mrs Bronson’s son going through training and all of the different events that he writes about in his letter. The head officials in the army are shown telling all of the soldiers that there are now three times as many colored men in the army than there were previously. This section of the film stresses the notion that men of all colors and backgrounds have come together to fight on the battlefield for the common purpose of defeating the Nazis. All men, colored or white, know the meaning of their job and are determined to work together in order to fight against evil. The common man who has previously been known as a farmer, carpenter, tailor, or any other common folk job is now a part of the United States Army and ready to do his share in the fight. The Negro Soldier flashes different scenes of the brutal warfare taking place that need to be dealt with. The final scene of the movie shows the entire black congregation standing up and singing, as soldiers march towards the fight.
The Negro Soldier influenced later African American films and its viewers in different ways. The film played a considerable part in altering the types of roles that African Americans received in following films. For example, instead of showing blacks only as slaves or subservients, this film showed African Americans as lawyers, musicians, athletes, and other valued professions. In different movies during this time period, African Americans were often portrayed as humorous characters. However, after The Negro Soldier, African Americans played more respectable and prominent roles in films.
Furthermore, people came to realize how important and influential a tool films were for social change. Messages within films, if expressed the correct way, could influence audiences greatly. The message within The Negro Soldier solidified the notion and provided visual proof that racial equality was a justified concept and should be accepted. African Americans around the country were very pleased with this film.
In December 2011, The Negro Soldier was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The Registry said the film "showcased the contributions of blacks to American society and their heroism in the nation’s wars, portraying them in a dignified, realistic, and far less stereotypical manner than they had been depicted in previous Hollywood films."
- Cripps, Thomas; David Culbert (Winter 1979). "Cripps, Thomas, and David Culbert.The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda In Black and White". American Quarterly. Johns Hopkins University Press. 31 (5): 616–40. doi:10.2307/2712429. JSTOR 2712429.
- "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates". Library of Congress. December 28, 2011. Retrieved December 28, 2011.
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