God's Step Children is a 1938 American drama film directed by Oscar Micheaux and starring . The film is inspired by a combination of elements shared from two previous released Hollywood productions: Imitation of Life and These Three.
A young black woman arrives at the home of Mrs. Saunders, a widow who is black, and begs her to look after her light-skinned baby, whom she cannot afford to feed. At first she says this is temporary while she looks for work, but leaves declaring she will never be back. Mrs. Saunders pledges to raise the "poor little darling" as her own, alongside her own son Jimmie. She names her Naomi.
Nine years later, schoolgirl Naomi is thought by the other black children to be aloof and they accuse the light-complexioned child of not wanting to be black. This looks true the day Naomi disappears on her way to school and Jimmie tells his mother that Naomi deliberately avoided the black school she was supposed to attend and instead went to a white school. Naomi denies Jimmie's accusation, saying he's lying because he hates girls. When Mrs. Cushinberry threatens to punish her for being insolent and mean, Naomi furiously explodes that she hates her and the other children and that she only came to the school because her mother sent her there. She spits in the teacher's face which results in Mrs. Cushinberry spanking her.
That evening, Mrs. Cushinberry visits Mrs. Saunders, but when she realizes that Naomi didn't tell her mother what happened that afternoon, she decides to keep silent. But Naomi has been eavesdropping, and when the teacher leaves she starts to tell her mother that the teacher was the one at fault. Then Jimmie reveals the truth: Naomi was spanked at school for being unruly and then spitting in the teacher's face. Mrs. Saunders spanks Naomi herself. Later, Naomi starts a rumor that Mrs. Cushinberry is having an affair with a married professor; soon a riot erupts at school and a crowd of angry parents marches to the school superintendent's house to demand that he fire both teachers. When Jimmie tells Mrs. Saunders about the riot, she rushes to the superintendent's office to dispel the rumor Naomi started. Because of this, Naomi is soon sent to a convent.
About 12 years later, Jimmie has earned $6,700 as a Pullman porter when he is approached by Ontrue Cowper, who tries to interest him in investing in the numbers racket. Jimmie rejects this offer, investing in a farm instead. After proposing to his sweetheart Eva, Jimmie invites his mother to live on his new farm. Naomi returns to town, reformed by her life at the convent, and apologizes to her mother for having been a bad child. When Jimmie and Naomi are reunited, the scene implies Naomi's romantic attachment towards him. Mrs. Saunders arranges to have Jimmie take Naomi to see the city. Although things go well, Eva's Aunt Carrie doesn't trust Naomi's unnatural interest in Jimmie and believes that she should be watched.
Aunt Carrie’s suspicions prove to be well-founded as Naomi soon confesses her love for her adoptive brother. When Jimmie, Eva, and Naomi return to the country, Jimmie introduces Naomi to his friend, Clyde Wade, who immediately falls in love with her. Clyde is a dark-skinned African American with a country accent. Naomi finds him repulsive and confesses to Jimmie that she has always wanted him to marry her. Realizing that Eva would be crushed by the loss of Jimmie, Naomi consents to marry Clyde. One year later, Naomi tells her mother that she is leaving Clyde and her newborn son and is also “leaving the Negro race.” A few years after that, Naomi comes back to the farm one night and silently creeps up to the window, through which she sees a happy family scene that will never include her. After getting one last look at her family, Naomi drowns herself in the river.
- as Naomi, as a Child
- Ethel Moses as Mrs. Cushinberry / Her Daughter Eva
- Alice B. Russell as Mrs. Saunders
- as Naomi's mother (uncredited)
- Trixie Smith as A Visitor (deleted scene; featured in trailer)
- as Jimmie, as a Child
- as Jimmie, as an Adult
- as Naomi, as an Adult
- as Ontrue Cowper, a Gambler
- as Cowper's Associate
- Laura Bowman as Aunt Carrie
- as Clyde Wade (uncredited)
- as A Banker
- Charles R. Moore as School Superintendent
- as Muscle Dancer
- as Tap Dancer
- Leon Gross as Orchestra Leader
- Dolly Jones, dancing as an extra
The above summary reflects details of the re-edited version of the movie as details from its original version are presented in the American Film Institute Catalog entry. It reports that original material was cut from the film after censors objected. Some of the cut scenes featured more insight on child Naomi's hatred towards black people and wanting to be white. Other footage includes adult Naomi with a white husband after she decides to pass for white (at the climax of the movie) only to be rejected by him when he finds out about her black heritage. Some of the removed footage however can still be seen in the movie's opening preview trailer. The film's script was based on a short treatment titled "Naomi Negress!," written by Alice B. Russell, wife of director Oscar Micheaux and the actress who plays Mrs. Saunders. It is reported that the film's racial characterizations were objected to by protesters from the Young Communist Committee.
God's Step Children has both been hailed as a masterpiece and denounced as stereotypical and racially denigrating. Patrick McGilligan provides a good summary of the film's reception and of arguments over whether it favors light-skinned characters. Protests at the time of the film's release apparently targeted scenes and dialogue in which Micheaux repeated his long-standing criticisms of the "race," charging it with a lack of ambition and an inability to plan. As in previous Micheaux films, God's Step Children seems to repeat the very bias in favor of light-skinned blacks that the movie also tries to critique. The "bad" blacks, such as the gamblers, are dark-complexioned. Clyde, whom Naomi rejects, is also dark and speaks in a buffoonish country accent. It is difficult to reconcile the film's praise for Clyde's industriousness with this caricature, and difficult to criticize Naomi's rejection of him, though she is obviously prejudiced against him largely because of his appearance. The film does not engage current social-political issues as forcefully as earlier Micheaux movies, such as Within Our Gates or Symbol of the Unconquered, and thus it is a challenge to rank it in equal importance to those works.
- Lopate, Phillip. "New York Times: God's Step Children". NY Times. Retrieved July 24, 2008.
- Gevinson, Alan (1997). American Film Institute Catalog. Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960. Smithsonian..
- McGilligan, Patrick (2007). Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America's First Black Filmmaker. Harper Collins..