Native Land (Frontier Films) is an angry picture. Its wrath is directed at violators of U.S. civil rights, especially those vested interests who struck down American working men in the labor turmoil of the recent 1930s. Unashamedly pro-labor propaganda, it is, nevertheless, an eloquent indictment of acts of injustice and intolerance which did happen here and might again.
Most of these acts are taken from the files of the U.S. Senate Civil Liberties Committee. Producers Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand have dramatized them in sequences bound together by straight documentary interludes, highlighted them with perhaps the finest spoken commentary (Paul Robeson) ever recorded on celluloid and an effective musical score ( Marc Blitzstein ) accompanying the Robeson songs. The result, better as episodes than as a whole movie, is a shocking, stinging picture whose realism could never have been achieved in soft-stepping Hollywood.
Like some of the early Soviet films, Native Land is charged with power by its in-line, unswerving theme. It opens softly with a camera portrait of the U.S. which free men have built by virtue of the Bill of Rights, veers suddenly into an outrageous violation of those rights: the murder of a forthright farmer (at Custer, Mich., in 1934 ) for presuming to speak his mind at a grange meeting.
From that incident until the final reel, Native Land seldom lets down. With a fine feeling for suspense and violence, it re-enacts the vigilante pursuit (in 1936) and murder of a pair of Arkansas sharecroppers who wanted a trivial raise, the Ku-Klux flogging of Joseph Shoemaker and two companions (in 1935, on a road north of Tampa, Fla.) for almost defeating a Klansman in the city elections, the untidy tale of a company labor spy, etc.
These savage episodic passages receive the full benefit of Producer Strand's sensitive, pointed camera work, and of the remarkably natural performances of Fred Johnson (farmer), Art Smith (labor spy), Housely Stevens (sharecropper), et al.
Native Land's fervent faults are the faults of propaganda. It fails to identify the violators of its civil liberties, save by implication and by frequent mention of big business. It ignores the flies in labor's own ointment, advocates militant unionism as the future guarantor of the people's civil rights, almost forgets the Administration's efforts on behalf of organized labor, and displays small interest in union means or ends beyond an economic security guaranteed by organized mass membership.
Although it was designed to plead labor's cause and harps on a few notorious cases of injustice, Native Land is incidentally a powerful reminder of the necessity for guarding the Bill of Rights as a protection for those people who are wantonly crushed in all kinds of struggles. Despite its partisanship. it is as vitally American as Carl Sandburg.