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Spencer Williams’ The Blood of Jesus (1941)

February 13, 2014

bloodofjesusBy the 1930s the Great Depression had phased out most black filmmakers as the major studio system began to grow. As black talent scurried to major studios for job security, the consolidation of the white distribution market along with the high cost of sound technology were contributing factors that made independent filmmaking virtually impossible. Mark A. Reid’s Redefining Black Films details how only Micheaux’s production company survived, though he too felt the struggles of running his own business during the period. By 1928 Micheaux filed for bankruptcy, soon after collaborating with white studio owners to keep his business afloat and churn out 20 more films well into the 1940s.

By the 40s, filmmakers with an ethnic background were out of reach in the creative control of filmmaking leaving only one other man besides Micheaux to create his own stories. Spencer Williams was well known and established in the Hollywood inner circle before he grew to fame in America portraying Andy on the “Amos and Andy” show in 1951. Williams had been taking bit roles in Hollywood films since the 1920s. Working closely with producer Al Christie, Williams developed into a skilled screenwriter, sound technician and had even dabbled in assistant directing. Producer and distributor Alfred N. Sack gave Williams the opportutinity to write and direct his own film. In 1941, with a modest $5,000 budget, Williams made his directorial debut The Blood of Jesus.

In it, Williams weaves a religious picture beginning with a devout group of church followers. During a mass riverside baptism, Martha Jackson, one of the church members, is gossiped to be upset that her husband chose a hunting trip over witnessing her baptism. Later, she confronts her husband asking him to try to be religious for to which he agrees. Yet, soon after while cleaning his shotgun it goes off shooting his wife in the chest. The story then picks up with her soul’s journey into the afterlife and the temptations that stand in her way as Satan tries to pull her into the bright, tempting lights of city life.

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At its core, The Blood of Jesus is a B-movie. Through cheap production quality and a simplistic narrative, it fits into the B-movie parameter with finesse. Although he had experience working in film, Williams was an obvious amateur and The Blood of Jesus is guilty of poor storytelling methods and horrendous editing. Scenes are loosely strewn together from one to the another leaving awkward pauses and moments hanging in the air of previous scenes. The non-professional cast may be refreshing, but is filled with actors that talk a bit too loudly to one another and extras that at times are caught staring into the camera. Character arches and motivations are weak and the dialogue at times sounds more like the cast doing a cold reading. Reverend R. L. Robinson’s Heavenly Choir, a gospel choir featured in the film, gives way to musical interludes in which padding becomes a way to add length to the film as the camera sits and captures the singing in stale moments filled with disjointed cuts to random objects or pictures.

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On a technical level, The Blood of Jesus is a bit atrocious. However, the significance of the story shines with blinding brightness. Watching black characters on screen and listening to the crackle of film as well as the overdubbed gospel being played throughout delivers a comforting excitement. Usually these elements in a film during the 40s weren’t reserved for black faces. The major studio system that featured black actors made sure their films looked more pristine and tidy. The Blood of Jesus appears almost like a guerilla styled type of filmmaking which is a testament to Williams and his debut’s importance. There were no black directors during the 1940s outside of the long-standing Oscar Micheaux. The economic system and business structures in place at the time made it extremely difficult for that goal to be achieved by black artists. Williams was lucky enough to have the financial backing and good graces of the system to tell the stories he wanted to. The Blood of Jesus was successful at the time of its release and is still considered one of the most important black films of all time, a true marker for a film that openly showcases a very particular aspect of black culture.

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At this point in my life, I consider myself a Quaker on my more religious days and agnostic on my more rational ones, but growing up I was raised a hardcore bible-beating Christian that strongly believed in the words of the Holy Bible. Although my internal battle between ardent love and confused disdain for organized religion had been harbored within me for nearly my entire life, I still felt a deep connection and pride being a part of the church. There was a warmth comfort in the routine of praise and worship. There was a profound peace when singing gospel songs featuring the impromptu vocals from whoever felt the Holy Ghost during service. Praying in unison with a group of people and feeling moved enough to shout “amen” and “hallelujah” felt freeing in church. That’s something Williams captures magnificently throughout The Blood of Jesus. While Williams’ film comes off a bit cheap and rough, its cultural framework is the most important aspect that still holds up today.

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