THE BOOTLEG FILES: “BLOOD OF JESUS”

BOOTLEG FILES 145: “Blood of Jesus” (1941 all-black religious fantasy).

LAST SEEN: Online at MovieFlix.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in public domain dupes.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: An expired copyright, plus the original materials are lost.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Not for this orphan film – only PD dupes will do.

During the 1940s, two creative artists enjoyed the rare privilege of being able to direct, produce, write and star in their own films. One of those artists was Orson Welles, and we’ve heard enough about him. The other was Spencer Williams, and relatively few people ever heard of him or his films.

Spencer Williams was the only African-American actor/filmmaker to work regularly in the 1940s. Of course, the racial attitudes of the era prohibited him from working in Hollywood. Instead, Williams thrived via a low-budget independently-financed operation in Dallas, where he had the unprecedented freedom of creating all-black films designed for release solely in the nation’s segregated theaters. These so-called “race films” functioned as a parallel cinema to Hollywood. Whereas the mainstream movies only showed blacks in menial roles, the race films presented all-black universes where African-Americans held positions of authority, dignity and sex appeal.

With relatively few exceptions (most notably the legendary Oscar Micheaux, who was mostly inactive during the 1940s), the race films were helmed by white filmmakers. The fact Williams could get behind the camera was an aberration (albeit a happy one). Originally a sound technician with the independent Christy Studios, Williams graduated to writing and acting in all-black films before being tapped to direct by Sack Amusements, a company specializing in race films.

The 1941 feature “Blood of Jesus” was Williams’ first film as a director. Filmed on a ridiculously low budget of $5,000, it was widely popular among black audiences of its era. The film was unknown to white audiences until many years after its first release, but today it is widely considered to be among the most important of its genre.

“Blood of Jesus” takes places in an unnamed Southern rural village with an all-black population. A local church group is going to the river for baptismal services, and one of the people getting a religious immersion is the lovely newlywed Martha (Cathryn Caviness). Absent from the service is her husband Razz (Spencer Williams), who spent the day hunting (or poaching, it appears). When they are home together after the baptismal, Razz’s gun accidentally discharges and Martha is shot. Her church group gathers around her bedside, singing hymns while Razz finds himself in a rare prayer session with the big man upstairs.

A female angel comes to visit Martha and takes her soul from the bed on a journey to the crossroads between Hell and Zion. The angel warns Martha that the Devil will be after, and almost immediately the Devil appears (played by a cackling James B. Jones wearing a Halloween devil costume). The Devil sends his handsome apostle Judas Green to woo Martha to join him at a nightclub in the evil city. She agrees, only to find Judas has sold her to the owner of a seedy juke joint.

Martha escapes and returns to the crossroads, pursued by men from the juke joint who mistake her for a pickpocket. At the crossroads, however, the directional sign turns into a giant crucifix complete with a status of Christ at its apex. The voice of Christ warns away Martha’s pursuers (that’s Williams subbing for Christ on the soundtrack) and Martha is protected beneath Jesus’ authority. As Martha curls at the foot of the cross, the blood of Christ drips down upon her face. Martha wakes up in her bed and is reunited with her newly pious husband. As Martha and Razz embrace, the angel appears to bless their new union.

Running 58 minutes, “Blood of Jesus” is a very tight movie. Perhaps it is a little too tight, because a lot goes on that doesn’t often fit into the context. To a casual eye, it appears some footage has been misappropriated from other films and shoehorned into the flick at random: the opening montage of a black farmer tending his fields is far more artistic in its editing and camerawork than Williams’ sequences, while heavenly dream segments including robed souls ascending to the pearly gates and a man climbing a ladder to the clouds are blatantly taken from other productions. Williams, truth be told, was not the most creative film artist – many of his scenes are visually static and his editing is frequently dull – so having these unlikely punctuations of style creates more confusion than coherence.

But what appears from Williams in “Blood of Jesus” is often remarkable. Granted, his passion play is simplistic (particularly with the actors dressed like an angel and the Devil). But the genuine and sincere display of Christian faith throughout the film is extremely rare for its time. With a rich soundtrack filled with traditional Negro gospel songs, unapologetic displays of Christ’s portrait during times of distress, and the astonishing sight of the blood of Jesus raining on Martha’s face, Williams’ film is a bold testament and stirring affirmation to religious devotion.

Little is known about the making of “Blood of Jesus,” although it appears Williams worked primarily with non-professionals. The performances aren’t entirely solid – Cathryn Caviness, playing Martha, earns more points for her natural beauty than her line readings while Rogenia Goldthwaite, playing the angel, was probably so weak that she had her lines dubbed (and not expertly).

And, strangely, “Blood of Jesus” ultimately works despite its flaws. Perhaps the film’s utter lack of pretentiousness makes it a satisfying curio. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman equated the film with folk art, while Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss praised it for possessing “naive grandeur” (Corliss is not a fan of Williams, noting his other attempts at filmmaking “vacillates between inert and abysmal”).

“Blood of Jesus” was a huge hit among black audiences and Sack Amusements signed Williams to create more films. Sadly, his other films never found the unique mix of that made “Blood of Jesus” click. His follow-up work was “Go Down, Death!” and it was basically “Blood of Jesus” from a man’s perspective (in this case, Williams playing a corrupt preacher who discovers God anew). Yet the film was dull and unfocused, with an uncharacteristically weak performance by Williams. His other films ranged from comedies to melodrama, but only the 1946 “Dirty Gertie from Harlem, USA” (an unofficial remake of “Rain”) is worth seeking out (and in that effort, Williams inexplicably cast himself as a female voodoo practitioner!). Williams eventually left filmmaking in the late 1940s and went to Hollywood, where he was cast as Andy in the controversial TV version of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

“Blood of Jesus” played for years in segregated theaters and was also shown at black churches; the film’s popularity guaranteed it would be bootlegged. But over time, the film’s copyright expired and the original materials for the production were lost (it appears that nine minutes of footage are also missing, as the running time on film’s copyright filing is longer than the current extant prints). “Blood of Jesus” exists today primarily in public domain dupes of varying quality – some prints are okay, most are not. It is unlikely that anyone will try to restore the film, given its public domain status.

Still, “Blood of Jesus” continues to fascinate. It was the first race film added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry and it was also among the first films voted into the B-Movie Hall of Fame. And as new generations discover the strange story of the race films, “Blood of Jesus” inevitably comes up as being a landmark of that unusual genre. While no one will pretend it is a perfect film, it nonetheless makes a memorable impression. To which we say: Amen!

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on September 1, 2006 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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