Forces Against Labor Rights  

Leo Hurwitz Native Land Forces Against Labor Rights
Leo Hurwitz Native Land Forces Against Labor Rights

The Making of Native Land

Leo Hurwitz’s Native Land (Watch Film) is a 1942 expose of repressive forces against labor organizing. The film is based on the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee’s (1936-1941) 65 volumes of testimony to the Senate on their investigation. And, the investigation’s results couldn’t be more troubling. The Committee found that both Pinkerton and William J. Burns Detective Agencies sent spies to infiltrate labor unions and to report on members considered adversaries to the interests of business owners and corporations. What happened to those union members, who were only exercising their civil rights, is the subject of this film.

Choosing the Right Voice for the Film

Leo told the story of La Follette’s findings by choosing the right voice for the film and by humanizing the available documentary material through enacted stories. In this piece, I will feature two of the film’s central stories, which vividly show the subversive, even murderous, forces against labor organizing in America in the 1930s and 1940s.

According to Tom Hurwitz, Leo’s son: “The first thing they [Frontier Films] knew was that they needed Paul Robeson … he had become the voice of the social progressive movement in America. When he spoke, when he sang, he spoke with the sound of America rising up … His image and his quality were one of absolute rectitude and absolute support for the underprivileged and the lower classes … Robeson’s singing gives a tremendous lift to the power of the film.”

Humanizing Documentary Material

leo-hurwitz-native land-ingela-romare-characters-on-the-couch
Leo Hurwitz talking to Ingela Romare

Ingela Romare, Swedish director, cinematographer, and actress, interviewed Leo about a number of his major films. He talks to her about how he developed a new documentary form with Native Land: “It was a film that was both documentary and enacted and it had a series of independent stories woven together within a framework of documentary material, which you return to all along … the derivation of the form came from the material itself. That is, here you have 65 volumes of testimony dealing with people here, people there, people then, people now, all over the United States.” Native Land is the story of those people – people being violently oppressed.

First Enacted Story:Trouble

Native Land begins as pro-American as a film could be, showcasing The Bill of Rights: a promise that is both America’s hope and the film’s irony (given the soon-to-be-revealed repressive forces against it). We see people going about their daily lives in the city, their walk full of trust, anticipation, and seeming freedom to pursue the American dream. But all too quickly we witness the dark underbelly of the everyday worker’s struggle. What organizing workers have to fight isn’t pretty; it destroys trust and it’s nothing short of murder.

First, we see a carefree boy as he runs through the fields excitedly calling for his Pa, telling him some men have come to see him. One, a large man with a diamond ring, stands by his recently purchased car and then slips out of sight. The farmer’s wife peels potatoes in the kitchen singing, happily preparing supper. When her husband comes through the door, asking about the men, she says to him: “They wanted to know if you were the Mr. Hill who spoke up at the Farmer’s meeting last night and I said, ‘You bet!’”

Liberty Attacked

Of course, this wife is proud of her husband and naïve to the purpose of this visit. Mr. Hill leaves the kitchen to find the men who came to see him. Suddenly, we see the men rush past the window and speedily take off in the big car. Mrs. Hill startles and runs out the door, loping fast across the fields; barefoot and panicked, knowing something is wrong. She finds her husband – falling into the river, head bashed, dead.

Next, we hear Robeson’s voice: “A man’s farm invaded. Liberty attacked. Right of free speech denied to an American. This happened in Custer, Michigan, in September 1936. People never heard of it; 20 miles away in the next town, they didn’t know what happened to one man a few miles away. Cleveland, Ohio, Spring Day, 1936, a man dead. It happened again. They say he was a union man.”

These murders were happening all over the United States, but for the most part, no one knew. Innocent people, taking the Bill of Rights for granted; seeing no reason not to; just wanting ten cents more for their cotton or the like; unaware of powerful enemies. Native Land shows people going to work every day. There is a feeling of security – but that security is false.

Exposing Trouble for Workers

This alarming trouble for workers and union organizers was what Leo felt he must expose. As his son Tom tells us: “Frontier Films (Paul Strand, President; Leo Hurwitz and Ralph Steiner, Vice Presidents) made Native Land “to use all the power of film to reach working people in the United States … there was no television and … the [real] news wasn’t the same as what the owners of factories wanted people to hear. So, this was a new movement to get out information about things people weren’t hearing at all…”

If the American people weren’t hearing the whole story, especially the story of repression, how would workers in the United States labor force be protected, and how would they get what was promised in The Bill of Rights?

Indeed, Leo tells Ingela Romare that these were the questions Native Land had to ask and answer: “How do we find our rights? How do we struggle for our rights to get what we need – and [how do we] organize to get what we need?”

Leo Hurwitz’s Structure of Need

Accordingly, Leo decided he must use his new “structure of need” to make Native Land. To Ingela Romare, Leo continues: “Native Land became the culmination of how you make a film (that is not a fiction film) have the values and the tensions that are equivalent to a plot in a story but not superimposed from the outside … one of the reasons why my films are free to move around from subject matter to subject matter [is] because underneath them is the flow of needs …”

So, need and the problem of need is what Leo wanted his documentary films to echo inside his audiences. His focus on need has important links to psychoanalysis, a method that takes seriously internal conflicts that create blocks to getting our emotional needs met. Native Land’s various interwoven stories show the back and forth of trying to have reasonable basic needs satisfied and the backlash of forces against it.

Second Enacted Story:The “Rat

This second enacted story is the story of Harry, a labor union spy; an informant posing as a union man, betraying those he’s underhandedly befriended. He’s both The “Rat” and The Stooge.

The Great Depression was over and things were starting to change. Now, the idea of Unions took hold. Workers put The Bill of Rights into action. And, Native Land shows a group of new pioneers. Robeson’s voice tells us: “They were confident. Overconfident … they felt their own power. They’d come out of The Depression. They had plans.” Their plans were fair. But we soon see the other side of the story, giving us a window into what happened to our farmer, Mr. Hill.

Thus, we’re in the offices of an “industrial audit service,” with its telephones and file cabinets. It looks like an ordinary business, but it’s not. It’s a front; with a complete line of undercover men including stool pigeons, union traitors, and stooges: “Trouble is our business” – and the Unions are trouble for big business and corporations.

We hear Paul Robeson’s voice again: “Behind the front of everyday business is a conspiracy against the lives of innocent men.” Those innocent men are the union organizers and the members of unions – standing up for their rights.

The Stooge

Now, we’re introduced to Harry, the stooge. He’s weaseled his way “in” with the family of the union president, Mack. Mack trusts Harry so much that he shows him the membership book. In fact, knowing dangers are around, Mack thinks the book is safest with Harry. He asks Harry to hide it for a few days. And, Harry cunningly agrees: “It’s safer with me.”

Harry knows exactly what he’s doing to his “friend,” and we see him in conflict. He’s not completely heartless. In fact, he tries not to give the membership book to his shrewd boss. His boss challenges him, though: “Which side are you on, Harry?” After all, Harry is paid good dollars for his treason.

The boss and Harry come up with a plan, making it seem that Harry has been beaten and the membership log stolen. The union men are loyal friends; they nurse Harry back to health. We hear Robeson’s voice: “Harry: bought and paid for. One spy in a key position; one act of betrayal.”

For a stooge: “Loyalty is the best policy.” But, we see that Harry is loyal to the wrong side. Truly, Harry’s trapped. If he wants out, he’s threatened with death. Do what you’re told: it’s the Mafioso of big business against labor.

We hear Robeson’s voice in another voiceover, letting us know the extent of a spy’s betrayal and big corporation’s tyranny over worker’s rights: “Union members with families are blacklisted and fired. Never to be hired again, month after month without a job. Where was the right to organize? Where was The Bill of Rights?”

Vicious Cycle Of Oppression

The film shows a vicious cycle at play. People can be resilient and determined. Yet, so are the powers against their constitutional rights. Native Land goes on to elaborate the story of a very difficult time for the labor force in American history. We see the rising up to fight for rights such as better pay as well as the freedoms to organize and speak out. Just as clearly, we see those repressive forces that won’t allow for even reasonable needs to be met. The cycle repeats, again and again.

After the blacklisting of union members, workers found their power. They fought the blacklist. They marched in the street and won back their right to organize. For the time being, there were no more meetings in the dark. Larger and larger numbers of men joined the unions every day.

Robeson’s voice wisely says: “You can’t blacklist a whole people. The auto union started with 30,000 members. In a year they had 400,000 … millions of little people gathered together to protect each other.”

Fascist Forces Against Labor Unions

Yet, there is no certainty when fascist forces live in the shadows of a democratic society (or, as we psychoanalyst’s know – lurk in the dark corners of the unconscious mind). And it all starts again: “they” kill one man; threaten others; break up unions. There is a rampage of killings after a peaceful demonstration: “If anyone talks about Rights, they slap them down.”

In one powerful scene, sharecroppers are chased out of a union meeting with guns. We see two men run for safety; one of them is shot. The film depicts a touching moment; the way things should be in a just world: a white sharecropper physically supports his friend, a wounded black sharecropper. Together, they try to escape down a deserted road. They don’t make it. Both are gunned down; dead.

We see an image of the Klu Klux Klan (November 30, 1935). Leaders of the modern Democratic Party are released into the arms of the Klan and killed. It’s not just black men the Klan murders. It’s white men, too. For fascist forces, skin color isn’t what matters.

Hate of Democracy in America

Robeson’s voice tells us the naked awful truth: “There is fascism in America. They hated one thing – the practice of democracy.” The La Follette Civil Liberties Committee pieced together evidence of widespread repressive methods: “They began to add up the techniques of terror; the arithmetic of fear; a conspiracy backed by millions of dollars and the biggest corporations.”

This conspiracy entangled the entire United States but was kept secret until the Senate committee revealed the spies and secret wars in every union: an $80 million payroll, armed vigilantes (the steel company possessed 500 revolvers); strike breakers paid by private corporations with personal arsenals of tear gas and plenty of shotguns for ammunition.

The La Follette report empowered the American people to win again – and they did: this time, unemployment insurance and collective bargaining. In Native Land, it is now Memorial Day 1937 and we see babies and families. We hear Paul Robeson’s voice: “What do people want out of life? Not too much – to pay the rent and have some kind of future.”

That doesn’t seem too much to ask, but in every decade and every generation, there are forces against democracy. In 2017, we have Trump as President, his anti-constitutional actions, the rise of Hate crimes, and the threat to bring hard-won freedoms down.

Need Is Genuinely Human

Ingela Romare says to Leo as he discusses the making of Native Land: “It’s really important to find what’s genuinely human because that’s the heart of it.” Leo nods: “That’s exactly right.” His films do just that. They recognize essential human needs and stand for human freedoms. They show the truth when people’s needs are brutalized and their rights compromised. As a psychoanalyst, I can personally relate to what Leo says about making a documentary that takes seriously what people need:

I developed a theory that the structure of the film ought to be based on need. You have to create a sense of need that is inherent in the subject matter not placed upon it from above … and that need then plays itself out in the world of conflict by and large: what is in the way of that need, how is it that need developed, where is it joined by other needs, and so forth, and you have a developing structure … a breathing film that … develops the needs in the audience, the audience feels them …”

We all have needs and if we are sensitive, we empathize with the needs we see. This is what Leo creates for us through his structure of need. We feel the needs of others deeply in Native Land and the film’s last image brings it home:

A wife is holding her young daughter, crying. She collapses as she tries to place a flower on her husband’s newly dug grave. Her last words are the message: “He was the kind of man who stood up for his rights, we don’t forget that.”

Let’s keep these words close to our hearts. We mustn’t back down or forget to take a stand against oppression. Ever.

Posted in

Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at sandracohenphd@gmail.com to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

Leave a Comment