Monday, February 9, 2015

The Blood of Jesus (1941) - Review

*WARNING: Use of GIF images*

Movie poster from Wikipedia

IMDb Summary

In the rural south of the United States, a godly young woman ("Martha Ann Jackson" played by Cathryn Caviness) is accidently wounded by her unchurched husband (Spencer Williams). She succumbs to the injuries, whereupon a good angel (played by Rogenia Goldthwaite) bids her to journey with him to the Crossroads of Life. Before she can travel far, the devil (Jas B. Jones) lures her with the temptations of juke joints and the city. Can she regain the straight and narrow before it's too late? And what is to become of those she left behind? 

Our Star of the Month, Spencer Williams made his directoral debut with The Blood of Jesus (1941). He also wrote and produced this film. Here are my thoughts:

Portrayal of the "Black Church"

Real-life preacher, Reverend R.L. Robertson & the Heavenly Choir

Religious themes (particularly "prodigal son" stories) were prevalent in most movies featuring all-Black casts. Hallelujah! (1929), Cabin in the Sky (originally a play), and Miracle in Harlem (1948) are just a few examples. In fact, The Blood of Jesus is very much like Cabin in the Sky. However, The Blood of Jesus still manages to stand out from the others.


For most African-Americans (especially during the years of slavery and well into...I'll say into the 1960s or 70s), Christianity and the Church were especially central in communities and individual lives. The church served as the soup kitchen, the schoolhouse, the dance hall (Rated G dancing, of course), the city hall, etc. It was versatile place that was always opened to guests. Even if you were a blues singer at the juke joint up the street, it was likely that you first started singing in church.

R.L. Robertson leads his congregation with "Sister Ellerby" (left) and "Sister Jenkins" by his sides.

Spencer Williams allowed that unique culture to shine in his script without making caricatures of African-American churchgoers. The cast members' prayer and worship didn't come off as an energetic screen performance. Even though actresses Juanita Riley and Reather Hardeman (as "Sister Jenkins" and "Sister Ellerby") played comedic roles, they too seemed honest in their praise to God. Speaking from a personal perspective, this showed the African-American church in a most natural light. 

*Further reading: Check out this link (scroll down a bit) to see how King Vidor (director of Hallelujah!) made the "connection" between African-Americans' sexual expression and religious expression. Although I still enjoy watching this movie, Vidor's observation of the "Black church" is a strange one--and it is apparent in Hallelujah!'s church scenes.


Race movie storylines were usually pretty simple. For the tight budgets didn't allow writers the opportunity to write scenes that would have required, say for instance, enough time for two brothers to tap, flip, and jump about in a large space. Instead, you'd get a familiar script with two or three musical acts thrown in to "spice it up". Not to mention that these acts were liable to perform at a tiny nightclub or at somebody's fictional rent party. Like the others, Spencer Williams stuck to a simple script for The Blood of Jesus and it did call for a "heavenly choir" and "jazz performers", but unlike the others, none of the musical performances seemed to be fillers.

Satan (Jas B. Jones) spots an angel (Rogenia Goldthwaite)

The Blood of Jesus makes a clear cut distinction between what gets you into Heaven and what sends you to hell: fast city life, fun outside of church, and wanting quick gratification=hell; waiting patiently for finer things/being thankful for what you have, seeking comfort in God, and friendship within the church=Heaven. Again, pretty simple. Some (myself included) may find the "black-and-whiteness" of such a storyline to be off-putting, but the film is grounded in some of the Bible's most often-cited teachings, after all. Even so, this didn't seem like a movie with a plan to convert people or get people to "get their house in order". It seemed to be Spencer Williams' way of making people relate to or understand the Bible in 1941.

Characters & Acting

There wasn't a bad performance in this film but there wasn't an exceptional performance, either. But again, simplicity was the key in this film. There was no need for anyone to chew the scenery. However, I think Spencer Williams (as "Raz"), Juanita Riley, and Reather Hardeman gave the more memorable performances.

Sister Martha Ann Jackson (Cathryn Caviness) having a good time

To fling synonyms of "honesty" around once again, I must applaud Spencer Williams for a genuine (or better yet, multi-dimensional) depiction of the African-American church congregation. While there was that distinction between what was "good" and what was "evil", Williams made certain that the characters weren't this precise. For example, his own character, "Razz", wasn't religious--and a character element such as that might tempt one to make Razz mean and nasty for the sake of being mean and nasty, but thankfully, Williams strayed far from this stereotype. The same could be said about other characters, including the lead character, Martha Ann. While Martha Ann strays away from the "straight and narrow" path for a bit, she doesn't go completely (and unbelievably) out of control. 

Sister Jenkins (Juanita Riley) catches Razz Jackson (Spencer Williams) in a lie. 

Overall Thoughts

Overall, I loved this movie. It's just under an hour long, but it didn't feel too short. As stated numerous times before, this a short, sweet, and refreshingly simple production--from the story to the cinematography and even down to the sound. Of all the Spencer Williams movies I've seen, I think this was his best. It's entertaining and it's also educational. Plus, if you ever spent time in "the church" or just in some rural areas in the United States' Southern region, this movie just may stir up some memories and nostalgia for you. It did that for me.

The Blood of Jesus (1941) on YouTube

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