Monday, 7 March 2011

AFED #65: The Blood of Jesus (US, 1941); Dir Spencer Williams. Lying Lips (US, 1939); Dir. Oscar Micheaux

In the early part of the twentieth century thousands of southern African-Americans migrated north, inspired by the promise of a better life. Many relocated to the city of Chicago, where the prosperous environment saw the emergence of a new black middle class with its own distinctive culture.

Out of this milieu the 'race film' was born; independently produced films made specifically for a black audience by mainly black-owned studios. Between 1915 and 1950 some 500 or so race mfilms were produced, the majority of which have now been lost. Yet amongst black audiences, both north and south (where segregation still held strong), they were hugely popular.

Unlike the stereotypical depiction of African-Americans in mainstream films - tarnished from the onset by Griffith's Birth of a Nation and only progressing at an interminably slow rate - the race films depicted blacks across the social spectrum and gave early roles to the likes of Hattie McDaniel (Gone With the Wind) and the great Paul Robeson.

Another was Spencer Williams, a seasoned character actor who found fame in the fifties in the series Amos 'n Andy but had a largely forgotten parallel career as a director of race films. For many years his 1941 folk parable The Blood of Jesus was thought lost, but since its rediscovery in the mid-eighties has become regarded as a minor classic and was the first race film to be added to the U.S. National Film Registry.


Cathryn Caviness stars as Martha, a devout young black woman in the southern backwaters who's baptised during a church service, while her errant husband Ras (Williams himself) is off poaching a hog. At home later Ras accidentally shoots Martha and, as the church congregation gathers around her bedside to sing spirituals she seemingly passes away.

But instead Martha's spirit is transported to the crossroads between heaven and hell, where her guardian angel tells her to journey along the righteous path towards salvation. She hasn't travelled far before she's tempted by smooth operator Judas Green, an agent of the devil who offers her a pretty dress and fine time in the city.

Martha can't resist and Judas escorts her to a swanky nightclub where he offers her to Rufus, a roadhouse owner who recruits Martha to provide some 'entertaiment' at his establishment. Having realised her folly Martha escapes but is pursued back to the crossroads by a posse from the roadhouse who believe she stole from them. At this point God decides to intervene and, having dispersed her assailants, decides to return Martha to the land of the living, much to the relief of Ras.

By the standard of Hollywood movies of the same vintage The Blood of Jesus is a sparse production; at times ponderous and slow moving. While the soundtrack of gospel spirituals is rousing, it's only when we finally reach the fantasy sequence that things really kick into life with the vibrant nightclubs scenes. This may not be the path of righteousness but it certainly looks like a lot of fun.

There's also some arresting use of imagery, particularly when the blood of Christ splatters upon the stricken Martha as she lies stricken at the crossroads at the climax. Although it could hardly be called a subtle film, and its heavy religiosity may rankle with those of a more agnostic disposition, it carries a raw emotive power.


Amongst race film makers one name in particular stands out. Oscar Micheaux was a former South Dakota farmer turned novelist who produced and directed the first black feature film with an adaptation of his own book, The Homesteader, in 1918. Over the next thirty years the Micheaux Film Co would produce and distribute dozens of race films, mainly focusing upon contemporary black life and all marked by Micheaux's forward-looking ideology.

Lying Lips comes from the latter end of his career, where growing competition from Hollywood had compelled Micheaux to concentrate on more routine genre productions with a guaranteed return. It's a crime caper in which nightclub singer Elsie (Edna Ma Harris) herself arrested on suspicion of murder after she discovers her aunt has been shot dead at their apartment.

Fortunately she has the support of her club's former manager turned boyfriend Benjamin (Carmen Newsome) who, alongside Detective Wasner (Robert Earl Jones, father of James), begins investigating Elsie's ne'er-do-well cousins, who stand to be the recipients of the aunt's life insurance payout if Elsie gets convicted.

Like The Blood of Jesus, Lying Lips was never going to win any prizes for its production standards; the acting is at best variable, the script strains under a lot of time-wasting exposition and it needs the embellishment of some dance and musical numbers at the club to add polish. There's also a telling indicator of Micheaux's own prejudices when the cowardly darker-skinned cousin is scared into confession by a visit to a supposedly haunted spot; pioneering he might have been but still susceptible to the old stereotype that lighter skin equated with superiority.

By all accounts Micheaux produced better work, and hopefully it may be possible to look at his earlier Body and Soul later in the year. As a modern-day viewer one is torn between being glad such films existed as a counterpoint to Hollywood and the fact it's not really all that good.

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