Cultural Front, Native Land

Sharecropper union organizers under attack. Native Land (1942)

The “Cultural Front(1996)  is a concept advanced by historian Michael Denning to explain the prominence of left-wing culture during the New Deal era.  Anchored to a hardcore communist politics rooted in the particular conditions of the U.S. working-class, it produced widely popular artistic expressions that advanced an ethic of fairness, equity, and respect for working people.  Many of its creative makers were affiliated with the Communist Party USA and actively supported their programmatic anti-racist objectives and campaigns.    

These readings offer an introduction to the Cultural Front, the 1930s workers theatre, film-photo movement, and Native Land (1942), a feature film my father Alfred Saxe worked on, that presents the story of the labor movement of the New Deal-era.

  1. Michael Kazin .  This Land is Your Land.  Humanities, May/June 2011.
  2. Michael Denning.  The Cultural Front:  The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century.  Verso Books, 1998.  pp. 6-15.  
  3. Stuart Cosgrove.  From Shock Troupe to Group Theatre.  Theatres of the Left, 1880-1935:  Workers Theatre in Britain and America.  Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.  pp. 259-265.
  4. Max Pearl.  Cameras for Class Struggle.  Art in America, April 21, 2021.     
  5. David Blakeslee.  Native Land review.  Edinburgh Film Guild. 
  6. Brief biography of Paul Robeson, the narrator of Native Land
  7. View Native Land (1942).

Reading questionspost on your rolling Google doc.  Send link to instructor:  Include date and name of assignment at the top of your response notes.  Single-space, proof-read.  No more than 1-2 pages.

  1.   From readings 1-6, what’s the story they tell?  Begin with a strong opening sentence.  Offer a few summary sentences that sketch some key elements.  Then share some key takeaways and your reflections.  Here’s some possible prompts:  what do these readings suggest about a filmmaking model that is explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-racist?  How does the communist politics (CPUSA) of that era compare to the present?  What are some questions and concerns?   

2.  For Native Land:

  • In a sentence or two, describe a notable scene to discuss in class.   What’s interesting?  What do you see?  Include its running-time location (mins: secs).
  • General responses to the film:  how does it construct an anti-capitalist narrative grounded in anti-racism?  Discuss a few scenes.  How does the film work for you?  How does it compare with film/TV/web media of today?