Monday, June 8, 2015

Spencer Williams | The Blood of Jesus

testing the waters
by Douglas Messerli

Spencer Williams (writer and director) The Blood of Jesus / 1941

Although it is a nationally recognized treasure, and selected for inclusion in The National Film Registry, Spencer Williams’ 1941 religious pic, The Blood of Jesus remains a pretty amateur affair, with some cast members missing their lines, others being slow on the pick-up, and even the singers, both Reverend R. L. Robinson’s Heavenly Choir and the supposedly professional jazz singer hitting some definitely sour notes with, in some cases, faces to match. In fact, it’s not much fun at all in this small rural religious community in which the definite “saved” Sister Jenkins (Juanita Riley) and sister Ellerby (Reather Hardeman) gossip with greedy delight and most of the community is not very imaginatively prayed over. The church in which this film’s action begins is a far cry from the theatrically-inspired Alleluia choruses of Black Gospel singing or the rhythms of antiphonal declarations and responses as presented in Faulkner’s works or even in a more recent film of rural Southern church-going depicted in The Apostle (see my essay below).
      Made of a budget of just $5,000, its writer-director Spencer Williams—later known for playing Andrew Hogg Brown on the Amos‘n’Andy radio show—didn’t have enough even to shoot new scenes for his vision of the heavenly gates, borrowing instead from images of an Italian filming of L’Inferno, let alone the skill or possibility of properly setting and lighting his picture. In short the film is often crude and rudimentary. Nonetheless, the simple tale about the damned and the saved, displays a simple charm that often appears in outsider art. Moreover, in its gentle mix of the deadly serious and the joyful comic, it documents a way of life that was perhaps already over by the time the film was made. And particularly in its numerous renditions of standard religious songs such as “All God’s Children Got Shoes,” “Amazing Grace,” “Go Down, Moses,” “Good News!” “I’ve Heard of a City Called Heaven,” and “Run, Child, Run” Williams’ work can almost be seen as testament to Southern Black music and culture.

      Williams, playing Razz, the no-good, Sunday-poacher husband of the beautiful and spiritually blessed Martha (Cathryn Caviness) are convincing as a loving couple moving in opposite directions, she, quite obviously to heaven, and he…well we know his destination by his absence from the film’s church-going and baptising events. The good-natured Razz almost sends his wife to heaven when his gun accidentally goes off. And the rest of the film centers on Martha—or least her attractive spirit—as she his beckoned off by an angel (Rogenia Golthwaite) and targeted by Satan (James B. Jones) through the handsome, salesman-like tempter Judas Green (Frank H. McClennan).

     At the crossroads between Hell and Zion Martha fortunately strays from her destined path by visiting the nearby city, filled with nightclubs and bordellos, where we get to see, much to our delight, an acrobatic dancer and a jazz singer, along with the close-dancing couples of the bordello. Mostly the misled Martha simply sits back and smiles; the city is clearly more entertaining than the preachifying country life. But when she’s hired as a bordello dancer (whose jobs appear to be more in the line of robbing the customer’s wallets than in providing them with sex), she hangs back, inexplicably staring for a long while out of the upstairs window. Ordered to enter into action, she quickly dons a new dress and attempts to escape, followed by the road house denizens who believe her to be the fleeing robber.
       At the crossroads, Satan has set up a jazz band upon a pickup truck, but has no power over Martha since she has fallen along the wayside of the road to Zion. There the blood of Christ drips across her face and she is truly saved, brought back to life within her own bedroom where Razz, now completely regretful of his sinful ways, sits in despair. The angel returns to bless their new reunion and their clearly religious committed future lives.
       The fact that this was one of the few all-Black films in a time Hollywood used Black actors primarily as maids, butlers, and drivers, of course, gives this work a great deal of significance, despite its often clumsy story-telling. But what is truly amazing is just how similar this straight-forward fable is to the far more sophisticated all-Black film directed by a young Vincente Minnelli just three two years later, Cabin in the Sky. Indeed, one might almost suggest that Williams’ film tested the waters, so to speak, for the lure of black and white audiences to both the religious subject and the racial makeup of its actors, which ultimately broke down the color barriers for artists such as Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson, and soon after, Eartha Kitt and Sidney Poitier.

Los Angeles, June 8, 2015

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