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BLOOD OF Jesus must be judged within its own very special context, and
not by current commercial cinematic standards. In its own context,
BLOOD OF Jesus is not only an important cultural document but a
compelling and great film. Yes, its production values seem crude and
its performances rudimentary, though wholly sincere; it must be
remembered that the budget was of necessity very low and that the
actors had little experience or access to theatrical training).
But the artistry of the director, Spencer Williams, shouldn't be underestimated: his sophisticated layering of symbols and imagery (from Protestant, Catholic, and Yoruba religious tradition) and his priceless snapshot of African-American life and culture at a crucial juncture is not just eye-opening but enjoyable. And the music is authentic and first-rate.
I enjoyed this movie much more than I thought I would. It seems that the
cast had little to work with (sets, costumes, etc.) but they did a
pretty decent job. Once I started it I could not keep my eyes off of it. I saw lots of good camera work that I would not have expected from a low budget movie. The message today might seem kind of hokey to "modern" minds, but for its day and time it was pretty much right on target.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Before I comment on the movie, I'd like to mention two cast members from my current home state of Louisiana: Reather Hardman-Sister Ellerby-was from the St. Landry Parish and writer/director/actor Spencer Williams-Razz Jackson here and later known as Andy Brown on the TV version of "Amos 'n' Andy"-was from Vidalia. In this film, Razz's just married wife, Sister Martha Ann Jackson (Cathryn Caviness), has just been baptized. When she comes home, she tells her husband how she wishes he was just as religious as she just before she looks lovingly at a wall picture of Jesus Christ. At that point, Razz puts his rifle down which shoots into Martha Ann's body and fatally puts her to sleep. An angel takes her to show the way to heaven but Martha Ann gets tempted by a devil's associate named Judas as he takes her to the city and they watch nightclub acts like a female contortionist and a girl singer. Judas then introduces her to someone who offers her a job. I'm guessing it involves dancing with strange men and picking their pockets since that's what one of these women does. As Martha Ann escapes, many of these men chases her mistaking her for the one who did the deed who's last seen sharing the riches with the boss that previously offered Martha Ann's job. As she comes to the fork in the road with opposite signs for Hell and Zion, Martha Ann gets pulled by the devil before the Lord says, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" As blood drips on her face, Martha Ann wakes up back in her bed calling to Razz who gets out of his depression and gets the congregation back in the room and singing again before the cut back to the cross that began the movie as we fade out...For a man best known for playing the naive-but-not-completely Andy Brown, Spencer Williams shows his range here from neglectful to saddened to joyful during the whole hour. But it's Ms. Caviness who's the real find as her reactions from concerned after her husband doesn't share her joy in her conversion to blissful during the nightclub acts to hysterical after thinking she's trapped concerning escaping from the nightclub job offer shows her range and the camera captures her in all her natural splendor. It's too bad this turned out to be her only film. While low budget, Williams got good performances out of his cast and provides some interesting edits and camera tricks occasionally. I especially liked the devil's laugh since the actor who played him-Jas. B. Jones-seems to really enjoy his part. So on that note, I highly recommend The Blood of Jesus.
Fabulous, in more than one sense of that word. A unique and wonderful film. Angels and other visions float in and out of a surreal Southern landscape. The acting is perfectly suited to what is clearly a director's film. The music includes lots of downhome spirituals, and some blues and jazz. The vaudeville scene, with that contortionist woman, is something else. The swing dancing in the jook joint also is terrific. The story is felt more than told. High artistry -- I might have to see it a few more times to really understand it. It also is marvelous to consider what Williams must have gone through to finance and make and promote and distribute this film. True art has a way of getting made and getting out there, somehow.
The jury that selects each year the National Film Registry is unpredictable: films as "The Blood of Jesus" merit to be rescued, for its anthropological value and for being a forerunner in the evolution of African-American cinema and filmmakers, but I have seen quite a few whose inclusion could only be justified by provincialism, as "Road to Morocco", "Lassie Come Home" and "Knute Rockne All American". In the religion fable "The Blood of Jesus", inspired by a poem by Langston Hughes and set within a black community in the South, a Baptist sister dies when she is accidentally shot by the shotgun of her atheist husband. She is then guided by an angel and tempted by the Devil in her post-mortem trip to Heaven, and goes off course into a couple of bars in the city, where she gets into trouble. It is true that the actors are amateurs, that the extras look directly to camera, and the dramaturgy is elementary. It is also true that the special effects and decors are poor, but it is clear that the film was chosen because it captured on film a few traits and manifestations of Americans of African descent, in which there is a way to do and say that is both spontaneous and naive, beyond the interference of camera, lights and technicians. The baptism in the river, the dance in the city bar, the gospel hymns sung by the choir in the dying woman's room, the costumes of the angel and the Devil (out of a costume party for children), and the Devil himself playing the piano with a band, compensate and amuse (sometimes unintentionally) for a pious tale, full of praises to the "All Mighty Lord", with an African-American sister that has to choose between the road to Heaven and the road to Zion (!), and even including the literal blood of Jesus to set her free.
Of course this is very different than watching big budget films of the
past 50-plus years. This was an all-black production which, as of this
year, was released 72 years ago. (From what I know of film editing, it
could well have been filmed 75 years ago.) A great piece of history
with great music and very sweet story.
The story begins pretty much at the point where an attractive young woman is going down to the river along with a congregation of Christians to be baptized. We learn a little bit about her from a couple members of the congregation gossiping with one another, talking about how her husband of 3 years (or 3 months -- can't remember) went hunting rather than coming to attend her baptism.
We soon learn too, after the newly baptized woman returns home, that her husband is also a poacher (if that is the right word). The woman makes an appeal to her husband to "get religion," explaining that it will make them much happier.
Then it starts getting interesting...
Two thumbs up!!! One more note about the music and singing: Fantastic! Reminds me of the kind of 78 rpm records many collectors love to listen to, needle scratches and all. You just can't get this kind of music today (generally). This is a film I am bound to want to watch again and again just to hear the music and singing. I also believe and know from my own experience that the Blood of Jesus is indeed a powerful ally in this world currently still under the administration of the Adversary -- so I love the message too, even if it does serve a lot of "corn" with some serious gospel.
This film is of some historical interest in that it represents black independent filmmaking of the 30s and 40s, intended primarily for black audiences. It also gives those who remember the "Amos and Andy" TV show a chance to see the earlier, serious work of Spencer Williams who portrayed Andy on the show and who wrote, directed, and starred in this film, as he did several others. Unfortunately, the acting and technical aspects of this film are so primitive that it is almost unfair to criticize it. It is an earnest and well meant effort, but worth watching only for a few nice religious images and the fine gospel singing on the soundtrack.
"The Blood of Jesus" is a 1941 "race film" produced, directed, and
starring black people and designed to be shown in theatres that served
black people during a time when segregation still ruled in many parts
of the US. It was written and directed by Spencer Williams (1893-1969)
who also is featured as the husband of a woman (Cathryn Caviness)
undergoing a spiritual challenge.
Williams is best known for playing Andy in the wonderful "Amos and Andy" TV series (1951-3), but his work as a major star and director of race films has been largely forgotten. Williams appeared in dozens of films from 1928 through 1947 and directed 12 films, including this one.
The film was made with a $5000 budget, provided by Williams. The actors are non-professionals, many of them taken from a local church group, the Reverend Robinson's Heavenly Choir. The story is taken from Southern Baptist folk lore and centers on the struggle for the soul of Cathryn Caviness, who lies dying after being accidentally shot by Williams. Caviness' soul is tempted by an over-the-top Satan (Jas. B. Jones) while a sweet angel (Rogenia Goldthwaite) tries to keep her on the moral road.
There are a few special effects, but generally the acting and photography are what you'd expect with a $5,000 budget. What makes the film valuable is the anthropological value of watching life for Southern Blacks their music, their dance joints, their belief systems, their language, etc. We even get to observe a baptism. In 1991 the film was selected as part of the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
An atheist accidentally shoots his Baptist wife. She dies and goes to a
crossroads, where the devil tries to lead her astray.
"The Blood of Jesus" was produced in Texas on a budget of $5,000. To present the afterlife, Williams used scenes from a 1911 Italian film called "L'Inferno" that depicted souls entering Heaven. A wise way to save on the very limited budget.
For years, "The Blood of Jesus" was considered a lost film until prints were discovered in the mid-1980s in a warehouse in Tyler, Texas. Although not a great film (the Satan costume is silly), it does do a nice job capturing Southern gospel culture. Many, many hymns are sung, and although they may not have changed much in the past 70 or so years, this makes for a great set piece on African-American religion practices.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Considering that this film was apparently made for only $5000, it's an
amazingly good film. Now it STILL is bad, but it is worth a look!
Spencer Williams is a man mostly forgotten today. While he's most
famous, for those who want to remember this, for playing Andy on the
"Amos 'n Andy" TV show, he was an accomplished man. He'd played in many
black productions before this and with "The Blood of Jesus", he wrote,
directed and played the male lead! Now' I will admit the writing wasn't
great, but his direction (considering the budget) was excellent, as he
and the cinematographer used some wonderful camera tricks to make the
film look good for a super-cheapo production.
The film is the story about a Christian woman who is accidentally shot by her husband. While she appears to be dead (and her friends are VERY quick to pronounce her that way), she actually is on a journey a lot like Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress". The Devil and his helper, Judas, try to convince the woman to stray from the path to Heaven through the evil and dreaded nightclub! Well, okay, I'll admit this is pretty lame--and so it most of the film. But, I still liked it for the double-exposures, view of the Pearly Gates and its value as a historical artifact. The history teacher in me liked this aspect, though I am sure most will find it all very ponderous and bad. Worth a look for a select audience, as black cinema from this era has been mostly forgotten.
The bottom line is that it would be very easy to pick out what's bad about the film, though I challenge the viewer to put this in its historical context and recognize that for what it is, it has some value...some.
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