- Director: Spencer Williams
- Writer: Spencer Williams
- Starring: Cathryn Caviness, Spencer Williams, Juanita Riley, Reather Hardeman, Rogenia Goldthwaite, James B. Jones, and Frank H. McClennan
- Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Amazon Prime and the Criterion Channel
From the early silent days, there was a parallel film industry in America that catered primarily to African-Americans. Not finding themselves represented by mainstream Hollywood films for a variety of (not great) reasons, they made their own movies, starring casts of, and targeted exclusively at, Black people. Hundreds of these movies were produced over several decades, but the vast majority are now lost, meaning no copy of them survives. These movies were often produced on a shoestring budget, but that does not mean that they have nothing to say. There are approximately 100 of these surviving movies, and of these, among the most successful from both financial and reputational perspectives was the 1941 film The Blood of Jesus. Explicitly addressing religious themes and Black audiences completely eschewed by the “mainstream” film industry, it became a major financial success despite featuring primarily amateur actors and having been made for $5,000.
Spencer Williams shot the movie in a small, rural town in Texas and used locals as most of the cast and crew, including the local church choir on the soundtrack. Williams had been acting in Race Films for years, but wanted to get into making his own movies. At that time, the only Black director regularly making movies was Oscar Micheaux, with other, similar movies being made with all-Black casts but with white producers and directors. In effort to break through these barriers, Williams produced, wrote, directed, and starred in his movie. After its success, he was hired by the largest Race Film production house and immediately made Marching On!, a movie about Black soldiers in World War II that had the biggest budget of any film directed toward that market up to that date. Unfortunately, it was generally thought to be boring and did not strike a chord with audiences. Williams’ directorial career did not continue long after this.
Williams later found a second act when, in 1951, he was cast in the TV adaptation of the wildly popular (and also wildly racist) radio program Amos ’n’ Andy. The radio program featured two white comedians pretending to be Black and derived its comedy from white stereotypes of African-Americans, but the stars chose to re-cast the primary roles with Black actors for the TV version. It was a major success and remained in syndication for many years until finally being pulled from the airwaves in 1966, after widespread outcry from groups like the NAACP.
The movie itself feels not so different from what a modern art museum would call “outsider art,” in the sense that it has a sort of primitive, handmade quality, yet also seems unaware of having that quality. It opens with a riverside baptism church service, with Martha (Cathryn Caviness) the one getting baptized. Her husband Ras (Williams) is the one person not at the service. He says he went hunting, but everyone realizes that he was actually poaching a neighbor’s boar. Then he drops his rifle and accidentally shoots Martha. The whole town turns up to pray for her recovery, but as she slips away, an angel (Rogenia Goldthwaite), wings and all, appears to guide her spirit to “Zion.” But things get mixed up at the “Crossroads” (one road leads to Hell, the other to Zion) and Martha ends up at a bar in the afterlife, where there is jazz and booze, you know.
The angel eventually helps Martha get away from the bar and she ends up back at the Crossroads, despite pursuit from a guy at the bar that thinks she stole his wallet (in… the afterlife?) and the Devil himself (James B. Jones), wearing a thin mustache and holding, you guessed it, a pitchfork. He also has a full on jazz band following him on a flatbed truck, because that is just how Satan rolls. But then the voice of Jesus tells everyone to go away, and a giant Jesus on the cross shows up above the crossroads. His blood drips down onto Martha’s face, and next thing you know she’s waking back up in her bed, Ras vows to be a good Christian from now on, and everyone celebrates.
I am not someone, lets say, who would seek out this sort of unabashed religiosity. But the gulf between this movie and what passes for modern “Christian cinema” couldn’t be wider. There is not an insincere bone in this movie’s body. One imagines that if a 1940s Black church had been able to make a movie, this is what it would be. In fact, that seems to be pretty much what happened. That is why this movie is still watchable in a way your average Hollywood product of 1941 isn’t. It won’t quite be whatever you’re thinking, because this isn’t the kind of movie you’ve seen before, it’s its own thing. If I don’t have as many pages to write about it, well, I’m not sure I’m qualified. It’s free on Amazon Prime, which you probably have, so you should see it for yourself.