One of the most significant of the Tyler Race Films is The Blood of Jesus, written by and starring Spencer Williams. As with many of Williams’ films, this is a study of the continuing conflict between good and evil, holiness and godlessness, church and juke joint. Williams filmed it with a largely amateur cast and with a minimal budget in 1941 for distribution to the 1200 or so movie houses that catered to all-black audiences at that time. Despite the limitations imposed by its restrictively small budget, “The Blood of Jesus” was a financial success.
Recently, thanks to the efforts of the G. William Jones Film Archive and the Hamon Art Library, the film was shown in three venues outside of SMU and Dallas. The Austrian Film Museum in Vienna showed The Blood of Jesus as part of its “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema” program. The film was shown from September 24th to October 8, 2015. The curator of the show, Lukas Foerster, was pleased to be able to show the film as part of the exhibition. “When we heard about the recent restoration of The Blood of Jesus, we took the opportunity to include it, because we like the film and thought it would be interesting to screen alongside the other films as an example of an older era of black independent filmmaking. Also, both the films and Williams are completely unknown in Europe.” Foerster added that those who saw the film were “mostly fascinated by it, judging from the reactions afterwards.”
In addition to the showing in Vienna, The Blood of Jesus was shown in June at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, programmed to accompany the recent exhibition One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. It was part of a film series, “Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration.” The film was shown with a new documentary, Thom Andersen’s Juke (2015), a study of Spencer Williams and his work.
On October 23, 2015, the Harvard Film Archive showed The Blood of Jesus along with Juke. The film was described in the accompanying program notes as “A Biblical fantasy about a dead woman’s soul caught between Heaven and Hell, The Blood of Jesus is also a fascinating document about faith and the everyday struggles of African-Americans during the WWII era.”
More loans are now pending for screenings in the next few months. These include the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, as part of their Texas Focus Screenings in February, and the Wexner Center for the Arts, a multi-disciplinary center on the campus of the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. The film is planned for a series devoted to African-American independent cinema.
The Blood of Jesus is available through the Central University Libraries Digital Collections.
Thanks to Jolene de Verges, Director of Hamon Arts Library and Film & Media Arts Librarian, for this guest blogpost!
Featured image: Still from The Blood of Jesus. G. William Jones Film & Video Collection, Hamon Arts Library.