Capras Negro Soldier Essay

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The Negro Soldier


The Frank Capra film The Negro Soldier (1944) was a wartime propaganda film produced by the U.S. Army in alliance with famed Hollywood director Frank Capra for the purpose of targeting African Americans and getting them to join Army and fight against the liberty-hating Germans. The film provided a positive example African American heroism as told through the preaching of the film’s narrator, Moss—an African American minister, who speaks eloquently in his church before his congregation of the need for the African American community to stand up for American values against those who oppose them. The film shows sequences of African American heroism to reinforce the preaching of Moss, who quotes Mein Kampf to stir up feelings of righteous indignation, and who describes how blacks throughout time and even now have stood up to oppose tyranny—from Crispus Attucks to boxer Joe Louis. The film concludes with the congregation rising to sing its support for the soldiers. Socially speaking, the film was a timely way for African Americans to experience important, but very limited, racial equality in the United States during WWII, as it showed whites and blacks coming together as a unit to oppose the Germans. In this manner the film can be seen as a stepping stone towards racial equality; but at the same time it was not exactly the “cure” to racism. This paper will describe a) how the film helped alleviate some of the racial tension in the country by creating a better and more positive image of African Americans in the mainstream cinema; and b) how the film was, however, ultimately an act of manipulation that aimed at encouraging African Americans to rally behind the WWII war effort and fight for the same country that still largely enshrined Jim Crow laws throughout a substantial portion of the country. The first part of this essay describes the film’s positive effects; the second part of the essay addresses the film’s underlying manipulative and exploitive nature.

Part I

Prior to Capra’s film, African Americans were see in films primarily as black stereotypes, characters used most often for comic relief.[footnoteRef:2] They were not taken seriously or used much for dramatic effect; rather, they were depicted as clownish and goofy: they “shuffled, sang, and danced” and were unsophisticated, unequal bit players in white-dominated films. For example, in the film An Interrupted Crap Game (1903), the African American characters engaged in buffoonery to make the audience though they demeaned the dignity of their own African American community in objective terms. Moreover, films like The Nigger (1916) and The Bride of Hate (1917) showed how terrible it was for blacks and whites to mix.[footnoteRef:3] Thus, the justification for segregation was perpetuated in the cinema. Cinema made African Americans seem like grotesque caricatures of humankind—more like apes than men, which only served to foster greater and worse racial prejudice in the country. Hollywood depicted blacks as being “hyper-sexualized” deviants, lazy good-for-nothings, inarticulate and apish, with eyeballs constantly bugged out and bulging as though they could not understand a thing going on in the world.
[footnoteRef:4] The images of African Africans in film were a reflection of what was going on in America in terms of racism, discrimination, and segregation.  Prior to Capra’s film, Hollywood mainly focused on depicting blacks as non-threatening—“eating watermelons, loafing, singing and dancing.”[footnoteRef:5] The idea of them being armed and able to engage in real combat alongside whites was the furthest thing from Hollywood’s mind. As the heart of the culture industry in America, Hollywood’s main interest was in propagating the kind of prejudicial view that most audiences would welcome. [2: Kathleen M. German, Promises of Citizenship (University Press of Mississippi, 2017), 41.] [3: Ibid, 49.] [4: Ibid, 51.] [5: Ibid, 58.]

However, with Capra’s The Negro Soldier, the African American was at last “presented with dignity, converting decades of demeaning images.”[footnoteRef:6] The need for blacks and whites to come together at last as one was made apparent. In this sense, Capra’s film was a turning point in the American film industry. The image of the African American suddenly evolved—and though it was the only military film in its time that tried to weave the African American into the fabric of American life, its use of positive black images did much to transform the dynamic of race in film. As Cripps explains, after 1945, it was difficult for audiences to remember that race movies used to be a staple of the American scene.[footnoteRef:7] By setting the film in a small church with the well-spoken and articulate African American preacher Pastor Moss at the head of the congregation, The Negro Soldier rejected the racial stereotypes that had persisted in American cinema for decades: the Negro at the heart of this film was serious-minded, eloquent and knowledgeable. The film used a succession of images to help reinforce the idea of equality—something no film prior had done. For example, at the 9:36 mark, the film shows one black and one white male both working in unison on a railroad, working as one on the same project for the greater good. At the 22 minute mark, the film fades from white officers with a commanding presence to black officers with the same commanding presence, giving each equal screen time to demonstrate their equality. The film does not jump from white officer to white officer, or black officer to black officer, but rather consciously goes from white to black with equal screen time for both. The camera technique itself was promoting the concept of racial equality. The Negro Soldier thus offered a new identity to African Americans that had not seen before: it represented them as more human, competent, and equal to whites.  [6: Ibid, 42, 66.] [7: Thomas Cripps, and David Culbert, “The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White.” American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5, Special Issue: Film and American Studies (Winter, 1979), 640.]

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Capra, Frank. The Negro Soldier. War Activities Committee of the Motion Pictures Industry, 1944.

Cripps, Thomas and and David Culbert. “The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White.” American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5, Special Issue: Film and American Studies (Winter, 1979), pp. 616-640: The Josh Hopkins University Press.

German, Kathleen M. Promises of Citizenship: Film Recruitment of African Americans in World War 2. University Press of Mississippi, 2017.

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