(OSV News) — During the Jim Crow era, a genre of movies developed that were geared toward African American audiences and known as race films. Since Black audiences seldom saw themselves portrayed in mainstream pictures — and usually only as servants or comically stereotyped figures when they were — these productions provided a popular alternative.
Among the filmmakers who had a significant impact on this market was actor-turned-auteur Spencer Williams Jr. (1893-1969). One of the two highpoints of Williams’ career, according to a consensus of critics and scholars, is his 1941 religiously-themed drama “The Blood of Jesus.”
Since the movie is in the public domain, it can be viewed for free online at the Internet Archive. Go to: https://archive.org/details/blood_of_jesus. It’s also available – as part of a double feature with director Oscar Micheaux’s 1939 race film “Lying Lips” – on a DVD released last fall by Alpha Video.
What Williams lacked in budget, he made up for in imagination. His setting shifts between this world and the next as he tells the story of a recently baptized churchgoer (Cathryn Caviness) whose loving but unbelieving husband (Williams) accidentally shoots her with his hunting rifle.
As the goodhearted rustic hovers between life and death, Satan (James “Jas.” B. Jones) and an angel (Rogenia Goldthwaite) contend for her soul. Lucifer provides his prey with a slick guide (Frank H. McClennan) to the vaguely decadent allurements of urban life, and it’s not long before this newly-minted nightclub patron is imperiled by her companion’s scheming.
As Williams elaborates on the Southern Baptist suspicion of the Big City – presumably against the backdrop of the Great Migration that was continuing to draw millions of African Americans northward – the shifting moods of the hour-long action are set by a series of spirituals. Interestingly, much of the iconography is Catholic: crucifixes and images of the Sacred Heart.
Simple, straightforward and even naive, “The Blood of Jesus” is also, at times, dreamy and ethereal.
Williams would later be the subject of some controversy as the result of his starring role as Andrew H. Brown on CBS-TV’s “The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show” in the early 1950s. The importance and value of his work on the big screen, by contrast, is uncontested. Thus, in 1991, “The Blood of Jesus” became the first race movie to be included in the U.S. National Film Registry.
John Mulderig is media reviewer for OSV News. Follow him on Twitter @JohnMulderig1.