Native Land

A bit outdated perhaps, but still a very powerful film. Its essay nature, and intense politics, are a heady combination.

In some ways this feels like the single film Paul Robeson’s entire career lead up to. Continuity-wise that’s nearly correct. He made only two additional films after this. My feelings have less to do with timing though, and more with the message of the film. Robeson’s entire film output tells a story. From his beginning as an independent black actor, to his being used by an indifferent and racist film industry, to his redemption as his own creative force.

This film is part documentary, part essay, and part recreation. It tells a story about the attempts that have been made over the last few centuries to undermine the will of the people, as enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Robeson narrates, and we get a series of vignettes, re-creating situations where unions were busted, people were murdered, and rights were trampled on. It get a bit hokey at times, in the way re-creations of historical events often do. Still, this is pretty powerful stuff.

Robeson himself was the victim of his own humanist belief system. In a post WWII America, where being leftist in nature meant you were a communist enemy of the state, Robeson found himself targeted. The final straw was when the state department revoked his passport, saying allowing him to travel abroad would harm the USA. He eventually won back that right, but it took about ten years of court battles.

This film should be shown in every classroom across the country. It’s depressing how much it’s still relevant today. Very little has changed sadly, in the 75 years since this was released. The idea that stuck with me the most, was that the fight for our rights is never over. That in every generation there will be attempts to curtail us, to control us. All of our freedom is won, not given. Nothing of value ever came from an enlightened oppressor. We have to fight, and keep fighting, for the things we believe in.