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God's Chillun (1938)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of God's Chillun (1938)
35mm, black and white, 9 mins
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
Words byW.H. Auden
Music byBenjamin Britten

An account of the slave trade in the West Indies, and the islands' development since emancipation.

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In the autumn of 1935, Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden began work on a documentary provisionally entitled 'Negroes'. Auden described the soundtrack as "a most elaborate affair, beginning with quotations from Aristotle about slavery and including a setting of a poem by Blake". Britten noted in his diary that much of their work had "to be altered for Grierson as being too 'flippant' and subjective" and by November, after a couple of months of work, the project was abandoned. A composite film, incorporating footage taken by Basil Wright during his visit to the West Indies in 1933, finally emerged in 1938 as God's Chillun.

The final film was described by Sight and Sound as 'experimental' and by film historian Rachel Low in less favourable terms as a 'freakish little film'. It appears both to criticise the European influences within the West Indies, and endorse the continuing role of the British within the area. In its historical account of the introduction of African slaves to the West Indies, the film uses a variety of African voices, point-of-view shots from the slave ship, and in particular the Britten and Auden soundtrack, to encourage the viewer to empathise and identify with the African slaves.

However, this historical documentary is framed by an address to camera by Jackie Grant, a Cambridge-educated headmaster who captained the West Indian cricket team from 1930 to 1935. Grant's speech contextualises the poetic elements of the film, by relating the plight of the African slaves to the modern situation within the West Indies - 'most of the land is still in the hands of Europeans' - and by highlighting, as a senior government officer, the response of the British government to these problems.

At a period of extreme industrial and political unrest throughout the Caribbean colonies, Grant emphasises that the 'cosmopolitan' West Indies is 'united by loyalty to the British Empire'. His concluding speech does allude to some of the current labour problems - "unfortunately all these crops are grown with the aid of cheap labour" - and also, in stating that the West Indians "have not yet acquired self-government", anticipates a move towards independence. Yet, at this moment of heightened West Indian nationalism and widespread unrest, Grant calls for gradual change and reiterates the need for continued British assistance. "Many changes for the better have taken place since emancipation,' he states, 'but much still remains to be done".

Tom Rice

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (9:03)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1938