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The film “Black Legion” Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 23rd, 2019


Over the years, the perception of the American film industry has been changing from that of production to a representative function of politics. Films provide a means to convey social messages that represent the day to day lives of ordinary people, as well as, the things that concern or oppress them.

This paper looks at the film, “Black Legion”, which was released towards the end of 1936. This film is based on an original story that is fictionalized to reveal the events of the actual Black Legion in the 1930s.

The film was inspired by the murder of a Works Progress Administration worker in 1935, and went on to be selected as one of the best pictures of 1937 by the national Board of Review. This paper explores the social problem in this film by analyzing the event that may have sparked is production, its impact on the filmmakers, and its effectiveness in exposing the social dilemma.

Analysis of the film ‘Black Legion’

The popularity of the film grew fast after its release owing to the events that took place in 193 and made hot news for discussion. The film was especially attractive since it appeared to address the terrifying repercussions of the issues that made the newspaper headlines during that period. The film revealed the growth and activities of the hooded organization that frightened the Midwest around the period when it was released.

The events of selfishness, bigotry and brutality were exercised under the assumption of “100 percent Americanism”. The victims involved various personalities including anarchists, communists and supports of the roman hierarchy, whose homes were burnt, and shops destroyed, while the men were flogged and lynched. Various reviewers acknowledged the significance of the production since it sought to not only provide entertainment, but also reveal the cause of various social problems (Amann 493).

Background of the film

The story of the film ‘Black Legion’ was based on information released by the press regarding a secret organization referred to as he Black Legion that was being accused in a case in Michigan in 1936. The history of the Black Legion organization dates back to the 1920s, when it was founded by the Ku Klux Klan, which was a big and politically significant organization across a vast part of the country.

The Ku Klux Klan was dominant in the South and Midwest regions, and was believed to have about three million members in 1924. This implies that a third of the white Protestant American males were Klansman. The Nativist organization was against the Catholics, the Semites, and the Negro community.

However, it collapsed in the later 1920s due to corrupt leaders who were benefiting from the membership, and also due to the introduction of the anti-immigration legislation. It is after this collapse that smaller organizations with similar views began to come up, with the Black Legion being the most dominant among them (Hokett 19).

The Black Legion has a membership of about one million people from Michigan alone, and another one hundred thousand people from the four Midwest states of Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Most of the members were working-class Anglo-Saxon men, who were mainly migrants from the south.

These men were involved in unskilled labor in the steel and automobile assembly plants. They were also poorly educated, and their Nativism was emphasized by the economic conditions brought about by the great Depression, due to fears of losing their work to immigrant laborers. According to an article in the New York Times in 1936, a typical member of the Black Legion could be described as

“A man who would be lost in any crowd in almost any urban slum in the country. … a man in the middle thirties, lean of figure, bony-faced, with pointed features… With his wife, who has borne him two children, he has been living in one or another of the communities within an industrial city for seven or eight years, but he has never come to reconcile himself to city life or industrial work….

He is working now, on construction—unskilled labor—at the steel plant or in the assembly chain in the automobile plant…The monotony of repetitive processes sets something welling up within him; he hates the machine that spares him from spending his strength and produces his pay check……. He cherishes his family and fears for it. The trouble of getting a job and holding it for his family’s sake during the depression is written indelibly on his mind and it conditions his most trivial opinions” (Hokett 19).

The black Legion was a secret organization, just as the KKK. Its roles involved the promotion of Protestantism, Americanism and Womanhood, as well as, the preservation of their member’s jobs.

The film portrayed their recruitment process as comprising an oath, and a lot of secrecy, whereby membership could not be applied for, but members were allowed to sponsor their friends and invite them for meetings. Secrecy of the organization was so valued that visitors or new members were required to declare their willingness to be torn to pieces in the event that they betrayed the society’s secrets (Hokett 20).

The Black Legion was involved in numerous acts of terrorism and vigilantism that involved lynching, murder, arson, and bombings. For instance, the Black Legion was responsible for the anti-union violence towards the automobile manufacturers in Detroit namely Ford and General Motors, as well as, the bombing of the several meeting halls and bookstores, with no interference from the police officers.

The organization was also involved in a plot to kill one million Jews by planting mustard gas bombs in every American synagogue during Yom Kippur, and putting typhoid germs in milk. They also planned on making an invasion to all army arsenals, though most of these plans never materialized (Amann 497).

Their acts remained unquestioned until the murder of Charles Poole, who was not tied to the anti-union activities. This led to the investigation of the murder and the chief suspect was identified as Dayton Dean. Dayton makes the primary character in the film, and is given the screen name Bogart.

The arrest of Dayton led to more revelations as he confessed his fellow participants, leading to the prosecution of eleven members of the Black Legion, two weeks after he was arrested, and four months after the murder (Production Code Administration 2).

Impact of the film production on the filmmakers

The murder of Charles took place in May, and Warner Bros. announced their production plans for the release of a movie called Black Legion the following month. Two weeks later, they submitted a treatment to the Production Code Administration due to the sensitive nature of the film that focused on arguing for the provocative subjects of racial and religious prejudice that brought about stiff opposition regarding the film’s production.

After the production was approved, the progress was rapid, mainly because Columbia was working on a similar project that was released in early November, 1986, several weeks before the Black Legion film was released. This film was known as “Legion of Terror”. A third movie with a similar storyline was also released n 1937, known as “Nation Flame” (Hokett 21).

The plot of the film was changed severally depending on the events that occurred during the period of its production. Initially, the plot emphasized the Legion’s perceptions of Semitism and Catholicism, and their correlation with the events of Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here”.

The plot was also meant to incorporate the relation between the Legions and the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the rise of a Native American fascism. Besides the Black Legion Organization, there were other numerous fascist organizations that came up in the 1930s. Studies show that there may have been around 800 such organizations, based on the anti-Semitism endemic that engulfed various parts of the American Society.

Surveys conducted in the same period showed that about 15% of the American population was openly against Semitic views, while 50% expressed their anti-Jewish feelings. It is for these reasons that film production regulators were hesitant about allowing films that openly condemned Nazism and other provocative representations on cinema (Amann 499).

The Jewish leaders also preferred to have their problems hidden to the world, as opposed to displaying them through film in an attempt to condemn the practices. One Jewish leader stated “there are times when to say nothing is better than to say something favorable.” Such sentiments may have influenced the production process by Warners’, which led to their omission of racial and religious issues from the original script.

Other amendments of the original script were noted at the ending of the film, after the ruling of Charles’ case in Detroit based on reports from various newspapers. This allowed exhibitors to connect the film to various concerns raised by the events by recruiting editorials from local newspapers and civic-minded individuals to give talks (Amann 502).

Effectiveness in revealing the social dilemma

The producers declared the movie as a fictional piece, and modified various scenes in order to address the concerns raised by the legal department. Two of the scenes added to the movie towards its end include “the scene between the defense lawyer and the judge establishing that the lawyer knew nothing of the false testimony, and the scene with the businessmen suggesting that the Black Legion was a racket, a charge that in fact, seems not to have been true”.

Some scenes were also removed, like a section that suggested that there were members of the jury who were members of the Black Legion. As a result, the film could not be identified as wholly fictional or entirely true due to the mixing of scenes, and the open declaration that the movie was fictional (Production Code Administration 2).

A reviewer noted that the concern with the film was not in the black robes and skull emblems that portrayed members of the Black Legion, but the knowledge that these items were used to hide other personalities that people interacted with on a regular basis. This aspect was most dominant towards the end of the film when the images of the convicted killers and their families revealed how ordinary the Legions were. The movie also revealed, through a judge scene, that there had been over 6000 cases of lynching since 1890 (Production Code Administration 4).


The film “Black Legion” is a confrontational movie that exposes the issues of racial and religious prejudice due to the compromise of various political entities. While the movie is depicted as fictional, it contains plenty of actual events that made the headlines in the 1930s, which makes it one of the movies released in this period that attempts to reveal the social dilemmas of that period. Other movies that were based on vital events in the period include “Over the Wall”, “China Clipper”, and “Mountain Justice”.

Works Cited

Amann, Peter H. “Vigilante Fascism: The Black Legion as an American Hybrid.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 25(3), (1983): 490-524. Print.

Hokett, Randi. “Waging Warners’ War.” Warners’ War: Politics, Pop Culture & Propaganda in Wartime Hollywood (1989): 15-24. Print.

Production Code Administration. “Black Legion (Warner Bros., 1936).” Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1989). Print.

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