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Spencer Williams’ Groundbreaking Race Movie ‘The Blood of Jesus’ to Screen at REDCAT in L.A. in April (There is a Story Behind That Image)

Spencer Williams’ Groundbreaking Race Movie ‘The Blood of Jesus’ to Screen at REDCAT in L.A. in April (There is a Story Behind That Image)

Of course
there is quite a story behind that wonderful image above and I’m going to
relate it to you right now.

The picture of Satan is from Spencer Williams’ important 1941 race movie The Blood of
Jesus made in 1941 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 movie extra in silent movies,
but soon began writing film scripts for black comedy silent shorts and directed
his first movie, 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 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, and 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 director were three films that he made for the Texas based,
low budget race movie production and distribution company, Sack Amusement Enterprises, in assocation 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 film (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 on 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. To jaded, cynical eyes today might scoff of these films as simplistic, comic and naïve,
but that is to entire 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 i 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 sued whatever resources he could find including the visually striking image of souls climbing up ladders to heaven which
he took from 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 an 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 Dave
Kehr 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 in 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 and who is currently working on the
definitive biography of Spencer Williams will introduce and discuss the film.

Go to
RECAT’s website HERE for more info and here’s film clip from the baptism scene:

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