Peter Chattaway mentioned at his FilmChat blog last year that Green Pastures (1936)was about to be released on DVD, and I notice from Tyler Williams' Codex Blogspot that it is now available to buy (although only in region 1 format).
I was slightly disappointed to hear it as I had only just bought a copy on VHS having held off for years. My wife, Mel, and I decided when we bought a DVD player that we wouldn't be people who replace their collections, so sadly I'll have to stick with VHS for now.
It was one of the films I got to talk about in an interview I did for a documentary due to be shown on Channel 4 this Easter. It was a controversial film when it came out. The Klu Klux Klan sought to get it banned. At the other end of the spectrum, it has been criticised more recently for it's use of "Uncle Tom" style stereotypes. Even the Warner release of the film now carries a disclaimer at the start
It's difficult to judge this film 70 years later. The original release date of this film (1936) was 20 years before the civil rights movement, and is approximately halfway between today, and the end of the American Civil War - race relations have changed so significantly in that 141 years that it's hard to tell how things actually were in 1936.
In my opinion, the fact that the KKK sought to ban the film, and persuaded many cinemas to boycott it, perhaps underlines how progressive a film it was. It was pretty much the first film to portray God, and to depict him as a black man, just 71 years after the end of the civil war, seems a very bold step.
On the other hand portrayal of the other characters is a little more complex. They are portrayed both positively and negatively, but few characters appear to be very intelligent. That said, the majority of the film takes place in the children's imagination, and so it could be argued that flatter more simplistic characterisations might be what we expect.
Time Out notes that it doesn't find the characterisations as offensive as "the way in which the depths of plangent suffering that inspired the spirituals are totally ignored. Instead we get white society's wish-fulfilment image of happy Uncle Toms who will be content with their due reward of a ten-cent cigar and a fish-fry in heaven." That quote reminds me of one my major criticism of the film - it's handling of the Moses story. I'm led to believe that the story of Moses leading his people to freedom from slavery was key in the negro spirituals and the theology that accompanied it, such that it has still retained significance in modern day Black Theology. Sadly the Moses section of the story is drained of all it's resonant associations and significance, presumably for fear of the radical implications of associating black plantation workers with the Hebrew slaves.
Overall I think that if you place the film in it's context you get a bold attempt to move race relations on further. By today's standards it certainly could appear to be regressive or oppressive. However, I'd tentatively suggest that judging it by today's standards is perhaps not appropriate - the content may be a poor portrayal, but the spirit behind it may well be far more progressive that many films today that are aimed at a black audience. That said I recognise that as a white middle class English man, I'm not the best person to judge.
Moving away from the race issue I commented on this film in my article on Genesis Films, where I noted "The Genesis scenes, being seen through a child's imagination make no attempt to be realistic, but their gentle humour, and basic simplicity give the film a spiritual authenticity that is absent from the majority of these films". The soundtrack is great, and there's some really nice gentle humour in the film. At times the script explores aspects of God and the bible that would probably get veggie-taled under the carpet today. This is particularly interesting as the stories are told through the eyes of children, and as a result make the story very accessible for children.
For the record the film covers:
Opening real life scenes
opening dream sequences in heavem
Cain and Abel
Noah and the Flood
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (as characters rather than their stories)
Moses and the Freeing of the Israelites
A Generic Prophet (not a biblical one, but someone who seems to combine different aspects from various Old Testament Prophets)
Jesus's coming (told theough Da Lawd's reaction)