Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Negro Soldier

During the terrible years of World War Two, the United States realized that if they were going to win the fight, then they would need more manpower than had ever been mustered before in their history. The government decided that despite segregation within their armed forces, they needed to do everything in their power to recruit African Americans. To achieve this end, the government hired none other than Frank Capra to head the production of a film unlike any other in history. It would be a film that would revolutionize the depiction of African Americans not only within the cinema, but in society as well. That film would be The Negro Soldier.

In hindsight, The Negro Soldier seems contrived and even manipulative in its depiction of African Americans and their contributions to American society.

You don't say...

The film is composed of two different testimonies delivered in the context of an African American church.

Don't be put off by his uniform, he has a lovely singing voice.

One Sunday morning, the minister (played by Carlton Moss, also the film’s writer) delivers a sermon directed at the African American servicemen currently in attendance. He then launches into a description of the various achievements made by African Americans throughout history: the athletes who beat Germany in the Berlin Olympic Games, Crispus Attucks being the first casualty of the Boston Massacre, the soldiers who fought and died in World War One. Moss deliberately emphasizes that African Americans were essential to the development of the United States, all the while ignoring such unpleasantries as slavery and civil rights violations. Curiously, the great African American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and heroes of the Underground Railroad such as Harriet Tubman are noticeably absent.

Carlton Moss addressing his congregation.

After Moss successfully riles the congregation up with reports of Nazis destroying French monuments to World War One African American soldiers, he is interrupted by a Mrs. Bronson who reads a letter from her recently enlisted son.

The Nazis destroying a French monument to African American soldiers.

What follows is a montage of the training undergone by African American soldiers. The son happily reports that he is treated very well and has significantly improved himself. He fails to mention how the Army is still heavily segregated. But that doesn’t seem to matter. The letter paints a picture of the Army as a massive machine full of men of every race fighting an unspeakable evil. As the letter ends, the congregation rises in song and we see soldiers marching off to war.

Mrs. Bronson reading a letter from her son.

As I said, The Negro Soldier and the world it presents where African Americans have equal rights and freedoms to white men seems contrived by today’s standards. But that’s because it actually was: The Negro Soldier was a carefully manicured illusion whose production was more fascinating than the actual film.

I know it's hard to tell from this image, but there are, in fact, several black men in this photo.

Let me start by acknowledging Thomas Cripps and David Culbert’s invaluable essay The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White as the source for the following production details. Cripps and Culbert describe how when production began on The Negro Soldier in March 1942, Frank Capra asked the Research Branch to “draw up a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ regarding the cinematic depiction of black.” The result was a list that included such things as:

-Avoid stereotypes such as the Negroes’ affinity for watermelon or pork.
-Avoid colored soldiers who are the most Negroid in appearance.
-Avoid such topics as Lincoln, emancipation, or race leaders/friends of the Negro.
-Include, but don’t play up too much, depictions of colored officers in command of troops.

My favorite part of this list is the last one concerning the depiction of “colored officers” which included the stunning side note: “The Negro masses have learned that colored men who get commissions tend to look down on the masses.” However, another request on the part of the War Department must also be noted: the deletion of a scene wherein a white nurse attends a black soldier. Even in their quest to revolutionize the depiction of African Americans in the cinema, the War Department was unwilling to challenge such a blatant racial and sexual taboo.

Of course, if both the nurse and the soldier were men, then it was apparently okay...

However, despite such difficulties, The Negro Soldier became a massive success. The film, while originally intended for black audiences, became mandatory viewing for all troops at replacement centers inside the United States. The film was still being shown as late as 1946, two years before Harry Truman’s desegregation order for the Army. Activist groups such as the NAACP and the National Negro Congress called The Negro Soldier “the best ever done” and clamored for it to receive a widespread distribution. The film was booked for church and civic functions by African Americans all over the country. In December 2011, The Negro Soldier was included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, being cited as having “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.”

Notice how none of them are carrying a banjo.

But is it right to praise The Negro Soldier considering that it was obviously made as a piece of Revisionist history that manipulated African Americans into the Army where untold thousands would eventually die? Consider this: what if in an attempt to lure homosexuals back into the Armed Forces with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was done with a film entitled The Homosexual Soldier? And what if in this film, homosexuals were depicted as having been crucial and indispensable to the development of American history while sidestepping their systematic abuse, prosecution, and intolerance at the hands of bigots? Do the ends justify the means? Who knows if that question can ever be answered. But one thing is certain: The Negro Soldier got results. If viewed strictly from that perspective, then The Negro Soldier is one of the most successful films of all time.


  1. I don't know that I agree with your question regarding recruiting African American and homosexual soldiers. You have to look at the time this film was made. Most historians will tell you that the participation of African Americans in WWII was a key element in the Civil Rights movement. Many African American men came back from the war and started questioning their place in American society. As for gays in the military, they were there from the beginning but just didn't share this fact. If you feel a need to serve your nation in its greatest time of need, then you do it knowing what is expected. Liked reading your essay.

    1. Many thanks, Kim! I just thought the parallels would be worth mentioning. It's purely a hypothetical.