Review: Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand’s “Native Land,” Narrated by Paul Robeson

A scene from
A scene from "Native Land"

Though plainly propagandistic, Native Land marks a milestone in documentary film history and remains extremely effective—thanks, in great part, to powerful narration by Paul Robeson.

A production of the leftist documentary group Frontier Films, Native Land recounts the struggles of unionizing midthirties workers against corporate oppression. The film mixes dynamically edited segments, narrated by Robeson, with significantly weaker reenacted vignettes. The most substantial of the short narratives follows an informat (Howard Da Silva) infiltrating a union, and works far better than the more didactic segments, such as an early one wherein a simple farmer is beaten after he speaks out in favor of unions. What makes most of these segments fall flat is the acting, which is surprising because most of the cast was pulled from the renowned Group Theater in New York1 Ultimately, the film makes its point by linking unionizing to original fights for American independence. “We fought for freedom in every generation,” Robeson says, over images of Washington and Jefferson.

The film was conceived by Frontier founders Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, who described their company as “an independent, non-profit motion picture organization devoted to the production of realistic films of American life.”2 Frontier was founded in 1937, and Hurwitz and Strand (with poet Ben Maddow) began to write Native Land that year, but due to funding issues it would take five years to complete.3

Strand, who began as a photographer, shot the film, while Hurwitz edited it, and the two shared the directing credit. Their work is best represented in the narrated segments, where Robeson speaks over shots of the American countryside and archival footage from the thirties. Hurwitz cuts quickly between Strand’s sharp images, in a rhythm unlike anything in traditional Hollywood filmmaking. Even the narrative segments have a freshness to them, despite whatever stilted acting and dialogue they possess, because of how Hurwitz pieces them together. But most memorable is Robeson’s narration—the African American actor was also a renowned singer, and his deep, booming voice completely sells the often preachy monologues.

Some may take issue with even calling Native Land a documentary, as it is so heavily composed of dramatized segments, and has such a clear agenda. But documentary was still an emerging form at this point, with the war about to lead to rapid advancement of the medium. At the very least, Native Land shows us how nonfiction films can be cinematic, an idea that many documentarians forget even today.

Where to Watch

Buy it on Standalone DVD / DVD as part of the “Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist” Collection from Criterion

For More on Native Land

Read the review in The New York Times

Read Clement Alexander Price’s essay “Paul Robeson: A Modern Man”

References   [ + ]

1, 2. “The Story of Native Land,” Native Land, directed by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand (1942, Hollywood, CA: The Criterion Collection, 2007), DVD.
3. Charles Musser, “The Search for an Achievable Utopia: Robeson and Documentary,” Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist, The Criterion Collection, 2007