Spencer Williams’ Groundbreaking Race Film, ‘The Blood of Jesus,’ Coming to L.A. (Yes, There is a Story Behind That Image)
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Spencer Williams’ Groundbreaking Race Film, ‘The Blood of Jesus,’ Coming to L.A. (Yes, There is a Story Behind That Image)

nullI wrote

about this special screening of "The Blood of Jesus" two months ago, and since the

event is coming soon, I decided to remind you of it. And of course there is quite a story behind

that wonderful image above, which I’m going to relate to you right now.

The picture

of Satan is from Spencer Williams’ important 1941 race movie "The Blood of Jesus," made on location in Texas. However, when people hear the name Spencer

Williams today, the few who are familiar with the name, know him as the rotund

guy in the bowler hat, who played Andy in those old, and still very

controversial, "Amos and Andy" TV shows back from the 1950’s.

But he was a

lot more than that. In fact, he was a genuine black filmmaking pioneer, nearly

equal to Oscar Micheaux. Williams started his career as an extra in silent

movies, but soon began writing film scripts for black comedy silent shorts, and

directed his first film, "Tenderfeet," in 1928.

He struggled

as an actor, finding occasional roles in mainly stereotyped and degrading roles,

but he soon joined up with producer Al Christie to make a series of black

comedy shorts. Later, in 1931, he formed his film production company, The Lincoln

Talking Pictures Company.

He then went

on to write screenplays for other race movies, such as the black western, "Harlem

Rides the Range," which he also acted in. He appeared in two more – "Two Gun Man

from Harlem" and "The Bronze Buckaroo," and he also wrote the script for race

horror/comedy "Son of Ingagi."

Williams

continued to act in films and TV shows, but perhaps more importantly. directed

some 12 "race films" during his career, such as "The Girl in Room 20," "Dirty Gertie

from Harlem U.S.A" and "Beale Street Mama."

But his

enduring work as a director were three films that he made for the Texas-based,

low budget race movie production and distribution company, Sack Amusement

Enterprises, in association Williams’ own production company at the time,

Amnegro.

Between the

years 1941 and 1944, Williams made three films for Sack that were unlike any

other black films (or films in general for that matter) during that period

–  "The Blood of Jesus" (1941), "Brother

Martin, Servant of Jesus" (1942 – a lost film which no surviving print has yet

to be found), and "Go Down Death" (1944).

All three

films were unabashed and sincere faith-based films deeply rooted in traditional

African American Southern Baptist traditions. The films were screened in

segregated theaters or audiences, and in black churches, and were very successful

with filmgoers, and at the box office.

Using mainly

non-professionals in his films, Williams created an authentic world of the

black segregated South, but yet a world that is full of life, traditions and

the enveloping atmosphere of love and community. Jaded, cynical eyes today

might scoff at these films, as simplistic, comical and naïve, but that is to

entirely miss the point.

They are

simplistic, but never condescending. They are films with a loving spirit and

deep respect for African American rural life, culture and spirituality. They

are genuinely heartfelt and sincere and speak of the hope and the power of

prayer.

In "The Blood

of Jesus," the story centers around Marsha whose ne’er-do-well but well-meaning

husband Ras (played by Williams), is off hunting rather than going to church

with his wife. When he accidentally shoots his wife, she winds up barely

clinging to life, as Ras, inconsolable and remorseful, begs for his wife to

come back.

But his

wife’s spirit finds herself locked in battle for her soul between an angel from

heaven, and Mr. Beelzebub himself (above). Needless to say, things eventually end swell for Martha and Ras, but not

before a struggle of titanic proportions.

Made on super

low budget of $5000, Williams used whatever resources he could find, including

the visually striking image of souls climbing up ladders to heaven, which he

took from the 1911 Italian silent film "Inferno" ("The Divine Comedy"). The film was

lost for decades until it was found in the now legendary discovery of

previously lost "race films," in a university’s storage warehouse, in Tyler, Texas

back in the 1980’s.

Since then, the film’s reputation has grown considerably over the years. Dave Kehr, who is the Current Adjunct Curator

for film at the Museum of Modern Art, has called the film a "masterpiece;" and film critic J.

Hoberman said that it is “a masterpiece of folk cinema that has scarcely lost

its power to astonish”..

Even more,

filmmaker Julie Dash has been quoted as saying that the river baptism scene in "Blood of Jesus" was the inspiration for a similar scene in her film, "Daughters of

the Dust." And In 1991, the film was added to the U.S. National Film Registry. It

is a film that anyone who claims to love black cinema cannot afford to miss

seeing.

All of this

is to say that, if you like in Los Angeles, there will be a screening of the

film on Monday April 27th, starting at 8:30PM, at REDCAT Cal Arts Contemporary

Arts Center, located in the Walt Disney Concert hall complex in downtown Los

Angeles.

Prof

Jacqueline Stewart of the University of Chicago, who is currently working on

the definitive biography of Spencer Williams, will introduce and discuss the

film.

Go to

REDCAT’s website HERE for more info.

Here’s a clip from the baptism scene:

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