Blackside's The Great Depression Blackside 1993

Photograph by Dorothea Lange for the FSA available online at The Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection
Yesterday I hosted a full length screening of Blackside's monumental documentary on the Great Depression at the City College of New York in our Rifkind Center which is part of our English Department, which gave me a chance to see all 7 hours once again in the light of its reflection on so many things we are currently studying in my classes--both African American Literature and Culture from the 1930s through the 1960s among the undergraduates and Black Visual Culture with my M.A. students at CCNY and my Ph.D. and M.A. students at the CUNY Graduate Center.

It is such a wonderful and indispensable series although the one thing I could wish for is that the creators had thought to use more contemporary black visual art--in particular Jacob Lawrence or Charles Alston--as part of their otherwise thorough picture of the ethnic intersections of life among Americans from 1929 through the conclusion of The Depression with the entry into World War II.

But the archival footage,  the clips from contemporary films such as the Grapes of Wrath and Native Land, as well as a few Busby Berkeley Musicals, and the interviews with so many dear old friends who have now passed more than makes up for this. Just to name a few, Dorothy Height, Gore Vidal, the artist Ralph Fasanella, Ossie Davis, St. Clair Bourne, the father, as well as the sons (who haven't passed I assume) of Adam Clayton Powell, Joe Lewis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Walter White.  Not to mention all the great interviews with witnesses of the times--union organizers and their descendants, journalists, factory workers and farmers.

You see the unfortunate thing is that this series is no longer in print. I was given the entire set as a gift from Blackside for some other service I did them and I kept it all these years and finally got it transferred to dvd.  The screening was a kind of a celebration, especially since I was use to watching it on video in my mother's kitchen on a small tv with many interruptions.  This instead was in a big beautiful room with wide screen projection (although, unsurprisingly, the print ccny's imedia made for me gratis doesn't retain the acuity of the video from which it was copied, which was exquisite).  The screening was very sparsely attended aside from my own students during their customary class meeting from 2 to 3:15 but this didn't bother me since it was the first time I had shown it and got to study it much more closely myself than if I had had a larger audience.

It is hard to imagine how one might squeeze more first rate history and American culture into a more commodious space or form.  Part one looks at Henry Ford's Model T as well as his vocal support of Hitler and Nazi fascism as the Depression began in 1929.  The footage of the plant in comparison to his lifestyle shown in newsreels is riveting.

Part Two divides its time between the then popular exploits of celebrated bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd and General MacArthur's little known but disastrous handling of the Bonus Army's protest in Washington D.C.

Part Three looks at Roosevelt's initial term as President, in particular in its impact on the city of New York working with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Robert Moses (albeit unwillingly), his fireside chats, in short, his rescue of American capitalism as Gore Vidal describes it.

Part Four focuses on the tragic plight of tenants and sharecroppers in the South, and in particular the tragic story of the attempts to create and sustain an racially integrated sharecroppers union, as well as the union battles in the Aliquippa steel mills of J and L, and the somewhat ameliorative creation of the NRA.

The fifth episode  takes on the Depression in California, the campaign of Upton Sinclair and the racism of the film industry in Hollywood, as well as the mounting racism against the Japanese community.

The Sixth episodes focuses squarely on the hypocrisy of the federal government in dealing with the racial situation in the South, the lynchings in particular and the anti-semitism despite the victories of Joe Lewis in the boxing ring at home and Jesse Owens at the Olympics in Germany. Fascism at home and abroad haunts the entire episode.

The 7th and final episode details recovery for some but not for all as the country goes to war with Japan, Germany and Italy, and, shamefully, interns Japanese Americans.  This episode also includes a special segment on photographer Dorothea Lange--the only really full on focus on a work of visual culture in the series's (that isn't a film)--who documented the poverty of unemployed migrants trying to get into California, which produced the famous photograph of Florence Thompson, the 32 year old widow stranded on a California road with her children around her in a make shift tent. The 1939 World's Fair in New York and the California Exposition give way to Pearl Harbor and the day that will live in "infamy." This episode includes, as well, A Phillip Randolph's proposed march on Washington, which results (according to the documentary, in the first presidential executive order dealing with race since Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation) in the banning of racial discrimination in the defense industry, as well as a segment on Charles Houston's campaign to document segregation in the schools of the South, which helped lay the ground for the Supreme Court Decision of 1954 desegregation of the schools decision. 

In summation, just great great stuff.  I may screen it again next year.  In my view, it needs to be reissued, and would love to participate in a movement to do so, although I have some idea of the considerable obstacles involved but I think in the end it may turn out to be as important as Eyes on the Prize. In a sense, it functions as prequel to Eyes on the Prize.

I probably made a million spelling mistakes in this--written very quickly--but here it goes!

1 comment:

Stacy Long said...

I enjoyed the screening greatly. It was interesting to see how white people were affected during these trying times. It really broke my heart when the white woman stated that she could not go to the world fair as a child because they (her parents) could not afford the admission. What a tear jerker!

About Me

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I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.