Marginalized and oppressed by society, Black American filmmakers made their films on the fringe for decades. Black filmmakers James and Eloyce Gist made films to augment their sermons as part of their itinerant ministry. Self-taught and aesthetically ambitious, this filmmaking duo made their debut feature Hellbound Train (1930) as an impassioned plea to their congregation to renounce the sins of the Jazz Age.
Hellbound Train follows Satan as he steers his demonic locomotive across the country gathering the souls of sinners. The camera frantically pans from one subject or action to another as scenes cut rapidly to move forward in time. Hellbound Train is a film of manic montages and surreal images of moral corruption and temptation. Each episode warns against a specific sin, cautioning the viewer and reiterating how easy it is to become another passenger on Satan’s locomotive of damnation.
The sermonizing in Hellbound Train makes The Blood Of Christ (1941) look subtle. Unlike Spencer Williams’ film of a decade later, James and Eloyce Gist aren’t setting out with narrative in mind. Their objective is only to sermonize, to serve their religious agenda. Hellbound Train doesn’t carry with it the message of strength in community that softens the blow of Williams’ picture.
In fact, the religiosity of Hellbound Train is exactly that which Oscar Micheaux’s cinema is so skeptical of. The Gist’s demonize women, dance, and jazz in equal measure. Their religious message is one of total obedience to God in defiance of Satan. The Gists deal in the moral absolutes that Micheaux, and to a lesser extent Spencer Williams, believed maintained the status quo of White subjugation of Black culture and freedom.
For all of its outsider art virtuosity Hellbound Train is a fundamentally problematic film. Yet it is a vital work of cinema that offers us a look into an often ignored chapter of our past. Hellbound Train was painstakingly restored for this very reason. It is essential that cinematic works by people who have been denied expression are preserved and seen. Hellbound Train also offers us a unique take on how the cinema can be employed as a practical tool in American evangelism.