On the spot
In ch. 60 of his book Amerikas Schicksalsstunde (1935) Ross proposed to ‘solve’ the alleged Negro problem by concentrating a part of the African American population in a southern state or two and deporting the rest to the West Indies. Written at the time when Ross sojourned in the United States, one cannot help but wonder whether the referenced footage was meant to visualize this notion for the film he was making.
This striking portrayal of poor blacks in Depression–era America was possibly shot in the backwoods along the southern Atlantic coast, somewhere in the Carolinas while the Ross family was en route to Florida—the scene is preceded by a shot of their Mercedes Pullman limousine standing by the side of the road. Doubtlessly what contributes to the scene’s impact is the variety of activities and responses: bystanders staring, a woman doing her laundry while she seems to have no intention of dignifying the filmmaker with a smile, while a girl who fetches water for her appears to be pleased with this unusual interruption. Whatever they were really thinking, each responds in their own way. It raises this lively scene to something more than poverty writ large, making it unlike a number of well-intentioned, contemporary American documentary films that also graphically presented destitution, in the southern Appalachian Mountains or in a blighted steel industry town. Yet these films also have a more controlled quality, as their stagy scenes appear to be subjected to an argument or a cause.1
We can only guess at what Ross’s vivid portrayal was meant to convey in some edited version, if any—his 1938-1939 American footage was never prepared for release. Still, in view of Ross’s abovementioned ‘solution’, one might venture that he filmed these people here, because they were precisely where he wished them to be.
Nico de Klerk
Colin Ross. [Excerpt from] Amerika Reise – Florida, Everglades, Leben der schwarzen Bevölkerung [archive title]
Germany: Tobis; 1938-1939
35mm | b&w | silent | 250.9m | 16 fps | 14’
Master: 0003-02-0114_X_OeFM_2016_ProRes422HQ_3072x2160_24p_Amerikareise_Florida-Everglades-Stadtleben.mov; 00:03:38,21–00:04:15,05
Case: American journeys
1 See for instance:
John Ferno, Julian Roffman. And so they live. USA. Educational Film Institute of New York University in coop. with University of Kentucky; 1940
35mm | b&w | sound | 25’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKCSbAk45rk.
Willard van Dyke. Valley town: study of machines and men. USA. Educational Film Institute of New York University, Documentary Film Productions; 1940
35mm | b&w | sound | 25’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kH6dHqAs_28.