Southern Movie 53: “The Blood of Jesus” (1941)
Low-budget and stark, 1941’s The Blood of Jesus was one of several “race” films from African-American filmmaker Spencer Williams. In the early 1940s, films by and about black people were sparse, and Williams was one of a few black directors making them. Set in the rural South, the story here centers on free will and redemption, as a woman’s near-death experience leads her to a choice between Heaven and Hell.
The Blood of Jesus, which is heavy on hymn-singing and other performances, starts on a baptism scene as the credits roll. We then see a rural dirt road, a country church, a man plowing with a mule, and two men singing under a tree as a voiceover narrates. Once the set up is done, the story kicks in as we watch a procession of a couple-dozen black people walking down a dirt road and singing hymns. Flanking the preacher are two large women in the front.
Soon, they arrive at a break in the grass and reeds, where they can get to the river, and we see our main character Martha get baptized. As she is getting dipped in the river by the preacher and his helper, the larger of those two large women Sister Ellerby remarks that she can’t believe that Razz Jackson has gone off hunting while his wife is getting baptized. “They’ve only been married three months,” she says. The other large woman Sister Jenkins agrees, but excuses herself to give the newly baptized Martha a robe to help her dry off. Once that serious part is done, we get a little comic relief when the next man to get baptized claims to see a snake in the river, giving him his reason to run away down the dirt road.
Then, we meet Razz Jackson, who is coming home with his rifle and a full croaker sack. He is a pudgy man, a little hard to take seriously, and he sits down on the porch after hanging his sack on a nail. As he collects himself on the porch, Sister Jenkins comes out of his house and begins a conversation about what might be in the sack. He tells her that he didn’t get much and not to mess with it. Razz is clearly concerned that Sister Jenkins will want one (or more) of the rabbits that he’s bagged and makes moves to keep her away from his take.
Meanwhile, his wife Martha is inside on the bed, resting as Sister Jenkins has suggested. We find out that the Jacksons are very poor and that the rabbits in the sack are all they have to eat. The scene moves away from Martha for a moment, as we listen again to the two Sisters gossip, but then we get back to the Jackson house quickly.
Martha calls out to the porch, “Razz, why don’t you pray and try to get religion?”
He replies, “Okay, honey, I’ll try,” in a lackluster manner.
Martha senses that he has no intention of trying. She then moves across the small bedroom and begins to ponder over a small portrait of Jesus. The image is stereotypically American: Jesus is white with light-colored hair, and he has a bright heart on his chest. Certainly, Martha cannot fathom what is about to happen.
Nearby, Razz is done with whatever it is that he’s doing, and he leans his guns against a chair. But it falls and goes off! The blast hits Martha, and she falls to the floor. Razz goes to her, finding that he has inadvertently shot his wife, though it is hard to tell whether his concern is for her or for himself.
Word must have traveled fast, and the main characters in the church crowd are in the Jackson house. Martha is lying in bed, probably dying, muttering some prayers to herself, and seeing visions of angels in Heaven. The church folks are singing around her. Razz hangs back with his face in his hand, maybe concerned, maybe just pouting.
Then Martha dies. Sister Jenkins leads a prayer for her soul and for Razz as well. At first, Razz looks annoyed, but as they sing “Old Time Religion,” he has a breakthrough. Razz looks up, puts his hands together, and begins to pray.
The movie is about one-third of the way through now – twenty minutes into the hour-long runtime – and Razz is left alone with his dead wife. He doesn’t know it, of course, but she is about to make her journey.
With the good people all gone, Razz is there praying, and an angel comes out of the wall to look after Martha. The angel is played by an attractive young black woman with long hair. She take Martha’s soul out of the house and to a nearby graveyard, where spirits in white robes wander around aimlessly. Martha wants to know who they are and what they’re doing. The angel tells her that they’re here caught between this world and the next.
But that isn’t Martha’s fate. The angel takes her to a dirt road and explains that, by turning one way, she will encounter sin and Hell, which is the city, and the other way, she will find redemption and Heaven. Just then, the Devil comes out from behind and tree. He is wily and grinning, excited to lure this soul away from goodness. He brings out a young man in a fine suit and tells him, “Do your stuff,” then laughs loudly as he sets his plan in motion.
At this point, we understand the movie to be an allegory. Martha has entered a dream narrative, outside of her mundane experience. Martha is the Everyman character, and this well-dressed young man is the embodiment of temptation. As she ponders her course, the man appears out of nowhere with a nice new dress and new shoes to match. He tells her she doesn’t have to pay for them, they’re free. For a woman who has been married to a ne’er-do-well, living on the brink of starvation, this must seem pretty good.
And she falls for it. She puts on the dress and shoes and goes with him to the 400 Club. They sit at a table in the crowded club where people are drinking and listening to jazz. Martha is loving it. After a moment, though, the suave young conman goes over to a friend of his, says some things we don’t hear, then brings his friend over to meet Martha. We will find out in a moment that the friend is a pimp who runs a dance hall. Simpleton that she is, Martha is lured by the fun and the promises of making plenty of money with very little work.
Next we see Martha, after the performance-heavy club scene followed by a few minutes of watching people in the dance hall, she is in an upstairs room by herself, clearly upset over the decisions she has made. The pimp comes in to tell her to get to work, but she wants out. He says no and demands again that she work off the money and nice things he has given her. Instead, Martha goes out the back way and runs.
But it won’t be that easy. As she leaves, men from the club – we recognize them as the fast-and-easy crowd – chase her. Somehow, Martha outruns them across fields and down dirt roads, even though she’s in an ankle length dress and high heels.
Eventually, the chase brings her to crossroads, where the Devil himself has a flatbed truck with a band playing. Around the truck and the band are people drinking and having a good time. Nearby is a large signpost that directs travelers one of two ways: left to Hell and right to Zion. Martha goes to the signpost and makes the choice to go right, but the Devil is there to stop her. He throws Martha on the ground and laughs maniacally. She is terrified. But then the saving grace of God comes to her rescue, as the signpost become the cross of Christ and a booming voice admonishes the Devil to leave Martha alone. He does, jumping in the flatbed truck, driving off with the band, and leaving the sinners without their pleasures. After the Devil is gone, the men who were chasing Martha arrive, and when one of them raises a stone to hit her with, the booming voice admonishes them, “Let him without sin cast the first stone.” Knowing they’re outmatched, they run away. The scene culminates in Martha being saved, as she lays at the foot of the cross and blood of Jesus drips onto her face.
Coming out of the dream narrative, Martha wakes up in her bed and has overcome the threat of death. Razz is thrilled that she is alive, and out of nowhere, the church folks reappear and begin to sing the praises. As the film ends, Martha and Razz stare lovingly at each other as the angel hovers over them.
The Blood of Jesus would probably be disappointing to twenty-first century moviegoers who are accustomed to polished productions. The acting is bad, the costumes and sets are cheap, and the website Rotten Tomatoes only gives the film 1.5 stars out of 5. But viewing it in terms of longstanding models of storytelling, it works. The Blood of Jesus was called a “masterpiece of folk cinema” by The Village Voice, and Time magazine put on its Top 25 Important Movies on Race.
A film like this one, which was thought to be lost at one point, has to be looked at in context. At a time when pre-Civil Rights African-Americans had almost no rights, almost no opportunities, and almost no wealth, Spencer Williams was making films for them that featured and celebrated their own culture, their own songs, and their own religion. At this point, it seems less appropriate to evaluate the production quality and more important to give credit to Williams, his cast, and crew for accomplishing a lot with a little.
As a document of and about the South, The Blood of Jesus presents what was not presented in mainstream films made by white directors. Spencer Williams was a veteran of Amos N Andy, and must have known and understood the stereotypes. Taking the reins himself, he had greater (though certainly not total) freedom to portray African-American life in his own way. That’s what makes films like The Blood of Jesus valuable.