It is impossible to watch The Green Pastures simply as a movie. We cannot help but think of it as an artifact, an historical document reflecting attitudes toward African Americans in the 1930s, inasmuch as this movie has an all-black cast. Furthermore, the movie is religious in nature, reflecting the understanding that African Americans had of Christianity back then; or rather, the understanding that whites had of the understanding that blacks had of Christianity: for certainly, this is a movie for white audiences primarily and black audiences only incidentally. This means that our attitude toward Christianity will intrude on our viewing of this movie just as much as our attitude toward representations of African Americans.
The underlying assumption about African Americans in this movie is that they are a childlike race, holding simple, naïve beliefs. The movie begins on a Sunday morning, when the children are rounded up for Sunday school. The preacher tells the children about how things all began, and as he does so, the camera closes in on the eyes of a child, just before the movie presents us with a representation of what was going on in Heaven before the Creation. In other words, what we are seeing is to be understood as doubly childlike: the conception of Heaven held by a child belonging to a childlike race. Moreover, the child is a girl, and prejudice against the female intellect may also be at play here, further intensifying the idea that what we are about to witness is foolish, but adorably so.
Presumably, it is this childlike mentality through which Heaven is depicted that permits us to see what no other Heaven movie has dared reveal: the Face of God. In all the other Heaven movies, we see only an administrator or some such. Sometimes we get to see God here on Earth, typically in satires or comedies. In serious movies, say those of a biblical nature, we are usually limited to just hearing the voice of God or to seeing an angel delivering God’s message. But to my knowledge, it is only in The Green Pastures that we get to see what Jehovah looks like when he is in Heaven. In other words, he looks like Rex Ingram.
Heaven as imagined by those in the Sunday school is one in which the angels seem to be having one long picnic and fish fry. Presumably there is sex in Heaven too, because there are little angel children running about and references to mammies. And there is even dancing on Saturday night. I know what you’re thinking. How could there be a Saturday before the Creation? But this is just one of the many anachronisms and impossibilities in this movie, which go with the presumed simple faith of the poorly educated “Negro.” In fact, watching the stories of the Bible told anachronistically is part of this movie’s charm. It is worth noting that even though all the angels are black, their wings are white. I guess the association between white and goodness on the one hand and black and evil on the other was too strong to be resisted, even in a movie like this. Angels with black wings would look like demons from Hell.
A more serious question might be the following: with Heaven being such a wonderful form of existence, why would God create an Earth full of sin and suffering? But that is a question one could raise without ever having seen this movie. We cannot expect this movie to solve the problem of evil when theologians have been struggling with that for centuries. Rather, I prefer to focus on what I believe is a novel answer provided by this movie to a problem that has bedeviled many a Christian. The Jehovah of the Old Testament is a god of wrath and vengeance, whereas the Jesus of the New Testament is a god of love and mercy. This would make sense if Jesus were literally the son of Jehovah, distinct from his father. But as we know, Jesus and Jehovah are one and the same. Of course, in Revelations, the final book of the Bible, Jesus and Jehovah are united in the way they deal out death and destruction, condemning vast portions of mankind to eternal suffering in Hell, more cruel and bloodthirsty than Jehovah ever was by himself in the Old Testament. But most people prefer a conception of Jesus as being a god of forgiveness.
Well, in this movie, after years of wreaking havoc on a sinful mankind, drowning most everyone and starting over, only to see people degenerate again into their sinful ways, Jehovah gets fed up and decides to abandon these worthless humans to their misery. However, there is this man called Hezdrel, who is also played by Rex Ingram, whose preaching is giving Jehovah a headache, so he goes down to Earth to see what is going on. Hezdrel says that people no longer believe in a god of wrath. Now they believe in a god of mercy. Jehovah asks him where he got the idea of mercy from. Hezdrel answers, “Through suffering.” Jehovah goes back to Heaven to reflect on the matter. He realizes that the only way for him to become the god of mercy that people now believe in is if he suffers himself.
You can almost imagine Jesus saying to himself while growing up: “Wow, this being a human being is a lot harder than I thought. Life is just full of misery and suffering. From now on, I’m going to be more sympathetic to these poor creatures that I created a long time ago.” And then when he gets nailed to the cross and really finds out about the horrors of existence, he becomes even more determined to be merciful in the future. In other words, Jesus did not die on the cross for our sins; rather, he suffered on the cross so that he could have some empathy.
Though not explicit in the movie, one might infer from this that suffering in general is not justified as punishment for sin, but rather is necessary for having feelings of compassion. And so, the misery inflicted on the African slaves in this country and the mistreatment of their descendants under Jim Crow was a blessing: if God benefited from such suffering, so too did his children.
Now, for all I know, there is some theologian I have never heard of who advanced this theory a long time ago. But its presentation in this movie is the first I’ve ever heard of it. Not that I’m buying it, of course, being the atheist that I am, but at least someone has finally tried to explain how Jehovah and Jesus could possibly be the same god.