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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)

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

I 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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