The Blood Of Jesus

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Spencer Williams made his second feature, The Blood Of Jesus (1941), for a measly five-thousand dollars. Williams, like many Black American filmmakers, had to make his film on the fringes of American cinema. These are characteristically regional pictures that often focus on a specific lifestyle which, in the case of The Blood Of Jesus, is a Baptist community in Texas.

From the beginning of the film Williams makes it clear that it is the Baptist faith that unites and strengthens the rural Black community in the film. This faith brings the people together and allows them a means to carry-on. Where the films of Oscar Micheaux are skeptical of the role that religion and religious leaders play in the lives of Black Americans, Williams stresses its necessity.

Spencer Williams uses Baptist spirituals to propel his film about temptation and divine judgement. Music is as essential to the formal structure of The Blood Of Jesus as it is to the faith that it documents. Baptist songs not only underscore the dramatic subtext of the film, but also narrate the action, particularly in those scenes on the “highway of life”. These music cues serve a technical purpose as well, allowing Williams to hide his meager budget as well as the limitations of his sound recording equipment.

In addition, to make The Blood Of Jesus Williams was obliged to appropriate sequences from the Italian silent film L’Inferno (1911). These scenes are immediately recognizable for their more lavish sets, exquisite stylization, and scratchy images. Williams could never afford to shoot such scenes himself so his art becomes one of flawlessly folding the found footage into his own image complex. In the context of The Blood Of Jesus the scenes from L’Inferno play as visions of heaven or hallucinations of the kingdom of Christ in times of moral peril.

None of the technical or monetary limitations of Williams’ production inhibit the film’s affectiveness; The Blood Of Jesus can move an audience just as well as any big budget Hollywood feature. Williams’ use of in-camera effects and superimposition may be rather simplistic devices, but the film is just so sincere that they never feel hokey or plastic. Like all great outsider art The Blood Of Jesus was a labor of love and it shows in every single frame.