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The Negro Soldier

The Negro Soldier(1944)

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teaser The Negro Soldier (1944)

Frank Capra was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood when he was recruited for the war effort. In 1942, Mr. Capra went to Washington with great enthusiasm and ambitious plans for a slate of productions for the Army Signal Corps, which had been in charge of filmmaking within the services since 1929. Military films were notoriously dull. Capra wanted to make engaging production to hold the attention of young and often uneducated soldiers, and not just in terms of training films. There were documentaries about the origins of the war for new recruits, profiles of America's enemies and allies, a newsreel film magazine for the soldiers, and the Why We Fight documentaries that he hoped to get to civilian as well as military theaters. One of his most important projects, however, was a request from General Frederick Osborn, head of the army's Morale Branch, to produce "a 'Negro War Effort' film." Racism was still rampant in the U.S. in general and the south in particular, where segregation was law and Jim Crow laws kept black citizens from political participation, and the armed services were likewise segregated. Few African-American soldiers actually saw combat and most were assigned support positions, like mechanics and cooks. Black communities were wary about enlisting and white enlistees brought their prejudices with them, so this film had to show African Americans why this was their war too and show white soldiers and civilians that African Americans were both fellow citizens and soldiers.

It required a sensitive approach and Capra asked William Wyler, a filmmaker who avoided the black stereotypes common to Hollywood films, to tackle the film. In 1942, Wyler and two writers, playwright Marc Connelly (who wrote the black-cast play The Green Pastures, later adapted to the screen) and Carlton Moss (a young black playwright and radio writer that Capra called his "Negro consultant"), went on a research tour of military bases in the Mideast and the South. Wyler found racism endemic to both the civilian and the military culture (Moss had to travel in separate train compartments and stay in "colored-only" hotels) and bowed out of the project, disillusioned by the reality of the situation and unwilling to whitewash the truth.

Stuart Heisler, director of the 1940 film The Biscuit Eater about the friendship of a young white boy and a young black boy, took over. Heisler worked with Moss to develop a script that avoided the issue of racism altogether. It was a delicate balancing act. As Capra wrote in his autobiography, "If my film inflamed passions, or hardened existing prejudices, it would be shelved."

The reference to "my film" may overstate Capra's creative involvement in the finished film--he was busy with other projects and had assigned Anatole Litvak to oversee the film--but he fought to make it a priority in the face of resistance from military brass. By the autumn of 1943, Heisler and Moss had a first cut to show senior army officers. Their film is framed by a sermon in a black church where a preacher (played by Moss himself) invokes the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match (seen in newsreel clips). The boxing clip is followed by shots of both Schmeling and Louis in basic training ("Those two men who were matched in the ring that night are matched again, this time in a far greater arena," intones the preacher), followed by a survey of the African American legacy of defending the U.S. that goes back centuries. The history of slavery and oppression is overlooked.

More importantly, the film shows black soldiers going through induction and basic training, at rest and play on the army base, even dancing at an all-black USO club. Heisler and Moss had to follow guidelines instituted by the Office of War Information that insisted that "references to racial minorities should avoid showing segregation wherever possible, and not deal too lengthily with sharp contrasts between the conditions of majority and minority peoples." Though the film never addresses those issues directly, it shows black participation in the army without showing any kind of integrated activity. Yet in an era when African Americans on the big screen were invariably subservient stereotypes or caricatured comic figures, this film showed black men as everyday Americans no different than white men, presented with dignity and respect. It was, in the words of Moss, designed to "ignore what's wrong with the Army and tell what's right with my people."

The Negro Soldier is a rallying cry aimed at encouraging the black population to enlist, but the film was praised in both the black and white press for its respectful portrait of black Americans. It was so well received by test audiences and military officers alike that it was released to the general public and screened for all soldiers. And while in the South it played almost exclusively in segregated black theaters, it received wider distribution in the rest of the country, playing for white as well as black audiences. The posters read: "America's Joe Lewis Vs. The Axis!"

Film historians Thomas Cripps and David Culbert, in their 1979 study "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," wrote "Only The Negro Soldier, of all wartime films depicting blacks, actually tried to weave the Negro into the fabric of American life; this characteristic made the Army's film a model for filmmakers wishing to break through ingrained industry stereotypes." Capra biographer Joseph McBride cites the film as an important step in the eventual integration of the armed services: "The Negro Soldier--as mild as it was--played a significant role in the breaking down of the Army's racial prejudice and helped pave the way for the desegregation of the Army in 1948." In 2011, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry with the following statement: "The Negro Soldier 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."

Sources:
"The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," Thomas Cripps and David Culbert. American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5, Winter, 1979.
The Name Above the Title, Frank Capra. Macmillan, 1971.
Five Came Back, Mark Harris. The Penguin Press, 2014.
Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Joseph McBride. Simon & Schuster, 1992.

By Sean Axmaker

back to top
The Negro Soldier (1944)

Frank Capra was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood when he was recruited for the war effort. In 1942, Mr. Capra went to Washington with great enthusiasm and ambitious plans for a slate of productions for the Army Signal Corps, which had been in charge of filmmaking within the services since 1929. Military films were notoriously dull. Capra wanted to make engaging production to hold the attention of young and often uneducated soldiers, and not just in terms of training films. There were documentaries about the origins of the war for new recruits, profiles of America's enemies and allies, a newsreel film magazine for the soldiers, and the Why We Fight documentaries that he hoped to get to civilian as well as military theaters. One of his most important projects, however, was a request from General Frederick Osborn, head of the army's Morale Branch, to produce "a 'Negro War Effort' film." Racism was still rampant in the U.S. in general and the south in particular, where segregation was law and Jim Crow laws kept black citizens from political participation, and the armed services were likewise segregated. Few African-American soldiers actually saw combat and most were assigned support positions, like mechanics and cooks. Black communities were wary about enlisting and white enlistees brought their prejudices with them, so this film had to show African Americans why this was their war too and show white soldiers and civilians that African Americans were both fellow citizens and soldiers.

It required a sensitive approach and Capra asked William Wyler, a filmmaker who avoided the black stereotypes common to Hollywood films, to tackle the film. In 1942, Wyler and two writers, playwright Marc Connelly (who wrote the black-cast play The Green Pastures, later adapted to the screen) and Carlton Moss (a young black playwright and radio writer that Capra called his "Negro consultant"), went on a research tour of military bases in the Mideast and the South. Wyler found racism endemic to both the civilian and the military culture (Moss had to travel in separate train compartments and stay in "colored-only" hotels) and bowed out of the project, disillusioned by the reality of the situation and unwilling to whitewash the truth.

Stuart Heisler, director of the 1940 film The Biscuit Eater about the friendship of a young white boy and a young black boy, took over. Heisler worked with Moss to develop a script that avoided the issue of racism altogether. It was a delicate balancing act. As Capra wrote in his autobiography, "If my film inflamed passions, or hardened existing prejudices, it would be shelved."

The reference to "my film" may overstate Capra's creative involvement in the finished film--he was busy with other projects and had assigned Anatole Litvak to oversee the film--but he fought to make it a priority in the face of resistance from military brass. By the autumn of 1943, Heisler and Moss had a first cut to show senior army officers. Their film is framed by a sermon in a black church where a preacher (played by Moss himself) invokes the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match (seen in newsreel clips). The boxing clip is followed by shots of both Schmeling and Louis in basic training ("Those two men who were matched in the ring that night are matched again, this time in a far greater arena," intones the preacher), followed by a survey of the African American legacy of defending the U.S. that goes back centuries. The history of slavery and oppression is overlooked.

More importantly, the film shows black soldiers going through induction and basic training, at rest and play on the army base, even dancing at an all-black USO club. Heisler and Moss had to follow guidelines instituted by the Office of War Information that insisted that "references to racial minorities should avoid showing segregation wherever possible, and not deal too lengthily with sharp contrasts between the conditions of majority and minority peoples." Though the film never addresses those issues directly, it shows black participation in the army without showing any kind of integrated activity. Yet in an era when African Americans on the big screen were invariably subservient stereotypes or caricatured comic figures, this film showed black men as everyday Americans no different than white men, presented with dignity and respect. It was, in the words of Moss, designed to "ignore what's wrong with the Army and tell what's right with my people."

The Negro Soldier is a rallying cry aimed at encouraging the black population to enlist, but the film was praised in both the black and white press for its respectful portrait of black Americans. It was so well received by test audiences and military officers alike that it was released to the general public and screened for all soldiers. And while in the South it played almost exclusively in segregated black theaters, it received wider distribution in the rest of the country, playing for white as well as black audiences. The posters read: "America's Joe Lewis Vs. The Axis!"

Film historians Thomas Cripps and David Culbert, in their 1979 study "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," wrote "Only The Negro Soldier, of all wartime films depicting blacks, actually tried to weave the Negro into the fabric of American life; this characteristic made the Army's film a model for filmmakers wishing to break through ingrained industry stereotypes." Capra biographer Joseph McBride cites the film as an important step in the eventual integration of the armed services: "The Negro Soldier--as mild as it was--played a significant role in the breaking down of the Army's racial prejudice and helped pave the way for the desegregation of the Army in 1948." In 2011, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry with the following statement: "The Negro Soldier 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."

By Sean Axmaker

back to top
teaser The Negro Soldier (1944)

Frank Capra was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood when he was recruited for the war effort. In 1942, Mr. Capra went to Washington with great enthusiasm and ambitious plans for a slate of productions for the Army Signal Corps, which had been in charge of filmmaking within the services since 1929. Military films were notoriously dull. Capra wanted to make engaging production to hold the attention of young and often uneducated soldiers, and not just in terms of training films. There were documentaries about the origins of the war for new recruits, profiles of America's enemies and allies, a newsreel film magazine for the soldiers, and the Why We Fight documentaries that he hoped to get to civilian as well as military theaters. One of his most important projects, however, was a request from General Frederick Osborn, head of the army's Morale Branch, to produce "a 'Negro War Effort' film." Racism was still rampant in the U.S. in general and the south in particular, where segregation was law and Jim Crow laws kept black citizens from political participation, and the armed services were likewise segregated. Few African-American soldiers actually saw combat and most were assigned support positions, like mechanics and cooks. Black communities were wary about enlisting and white enlistees brought their prejudices with them, so this film had to show African Americans why this was their war too and show white soldiers and civilians that African Americans were both fellow citizens and soldiers.

It required a sensitive approach and Capra asked William Wyler, a filmmaker who avoided the black stereotypes common to Hollywood films, to tackle the film. In 1942, Wyler and two writers, playwright Marc Connelly (who wrote the black-cast play The Green Pastures, later adapted to the screen) and Carlton Moss (a young black playwright and radio writer that Capra called his "Negro consultant"), went on a research tour of military bases in the Mideast and the South. Wyler found racism endemic to both the civilian and the military culture (Moss had to travel in separate train compartments and stay in "colored-only" hotels) and bowed out of the project, disillusioned by the reality of the situation and unwilling to whitewash the truth.

Stuart Heisler, director of the 1940 film The Biscuit Eater about the friendship of a young white boy and a young black boy, took over. Heisler worked with Moss to develop a script that avoided the issue of racism altogether. It was a delicate balancing act. As Capra wrote in his autobiography, "If my film inflamed passions, or hardened existing prejudices, it would be shelved."

The reference to "my film" may overstate Capra's creative involvement in the finished film--he was busy with other projects and had assigned Anatole Litvak to oversee the film--but he fought to make it a priority in the face of resistance from military brass. By the autumn of 1943, Heisler and Moss had a first cut to show senior army officers. Their film is framed by a sermon in a black church where a preacher (played by Moss himself) invokes the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match (seen in newsreel clips). The boxing clip is followed by shots of both Schmeling and Louis in basic training ("Those two men who were matched in the ring that night are matched again, this time in a far greater arena," intones the preacher), followed by a survey of the African American legacy of defending the U.S. that goes back centuries. The history of slavery and oppression is overlooked.

More importantly, the film shows black soldiers going through induction and basic training, at rest and play on the army base, even dancing at an all-black USO club. Heisler and Moss had to follow guidelines instituted by the Office of War Information that insisted that "references to racial minorities should avoid showing segregation wherever possible, and not deal too lengthily with sharp contrasts between the conditions of majority and minority peoples." Though the film never addresses those issues directly, it shows black participation in the army without showing any kind of integrated activity. Yet in an era when African Americans on the big screen were invariably subservient stereotypes or caricatured comic figures, this film showed black men as everyday Americans no different than white men, presented with dignity and respect. It was, in the words of Moss, designed to "ignore what's wrong with the Army and tell what's right with my people."

The Negro Soldier is a rallying cry aimed at encouraging the black population to enlist, but the film was praised in both the black and white press for its respectful portrait of black Americans. It was so well received by test audiences and military officers alike that it was released to the general public and screened for all soldiers. And while in the South it played almost exclusively in segregated black theaters, it received wider distribution in the rest of the country, playing for white as well as black audiences. The posters read: "America's Joe Lewis Vs. The Axis!"

Film historians Thomas Cripps and David Culbert, in their 1979 study "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," wrote "Only The Negro Soldier, of all wartime films depicting blacks, actually tried to weave the Negro into the fabric of American life; this characteristic made the Army's film a model for filmmakers wishing to break through ingrained industry stereotypes." Capra biographer Joseph McBride cites the film as an important step in the eventual integration of the armed services: "The Negro Soldier--as mild as it was--played a significant role in the breaking down of the Army's racial prejudice and helped pave the way for the desegregation of the Army in 1948." In 2011, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry with the following statement: "The Negro Soldier 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."

By Sean Axmaker

Sources:
"The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," Thomas Cripps and David Culbert. American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5, Winter, 1979.
The Name Above the Title, Frank Capra. Macmillan, 1971.
Five Came Back, Mark Harris. The Penguin Press, 2014.
Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Joseph McBride. Simon & Schuster, 1992.

back to top