Spencer Williams’ Behind-the-Camera Work Deserves Another Look
Anyone who watched American television during the 1950s knew Spencer Williams’ face. He was known in households everywhere for his weekly portrayal of Andy, the silliest of all the silly characters on “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” a popular comedy series with an all-black cast.
But there was something most viewers didn’t know: Just a few years earlier, Williams had been a full-fledged film maker in his own right. Before achieving his TV fame, he directed, wrote and performed in a string of movies aimed at black audiences and grounded in the folk traditions of rural Southerners.
After being overlooked for decades, this unique body of work has now been placed in a much-deserved spotlight by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which featured six Williams movies in its New American Film and Video Series recently. Williams, who died in 1969, is hardly a “new” film maker. But his work is as American as anything could be, and the museum--which takes a frequent interest in the byways of African-American cinema--has earned thanks for bringing it renewed attention.
Williams had a remarkable career. As a young man in Hollywood during the early years of sound film, he parlayed his knowledge of black folkways into a job with a major studio, where he worked on black-targeted “race movies” and other low-budget programming. But his real ambition was to make pictures based on the traditions he knew from his own rural Louisiana background. His big chance came in 1941, when he directed and acted in “The Blood of Jesus,” an astonishing 50-minute melodrama about a woman who has visions of heaven, hell, and her future life after being gravely wounded by her husband in a shooting accident.
There’s nothing remotely slick or sophisticated about this movie, which (like all the Williams films I’ve seen) has rough-hewn performances, editing, and camera work. Such technical drawbacks seem unimportant, though, in light of the moral passion and visual creativity that mark the picture. While its cinematic qualities are unpolished, they allow for a directness of expression and a purity of atmosphere that have few equivalents in Hollywood or anywhere else. Just as important, the performances bypass Hollywood-style realism in favor of a ritual quality that recalls the traditions of Southern black churches--just as some of the most powerful and complex American jazz has deep roots in the heritage of gospel and church-choir music.
I agree with Whitney guest curator Adrienne Lanier Seward, who assembled the Williams programs, that “The Blood of Jesus” marks the high point of Williams’ film career.
“Go Down Death,” a 1944 drama about a righteous preacher framed by a sin-promoting villain, tries for a similar visionary style--complete with gauzy visions of the afterlife--to less compelling effect.
“Of One Blood,” the moralistic story of brothers separated by the accidents of life, draws much of its interest from Williams’ inability to cope with special effects (there’s an unwittingly hilarious dam-breaking scene) or to coax conventionally realistic performances from his cast.
There’s hidden gold in Williams movies that don’t try so hard to be inspirational, though. “Dirty Gertie From Harlem USA,” made in 1946, recalls W. Somerset Maugham’s deftly written “Rain” (and “Sadie Thompson,” its most famous film version) in its story of a loose-living woman caught between a preacher and a sailor on a provincial island. “The Girl in Room 20,” also from 1946, does its moralizing in a setting that’s more commonplace and more convincing.
The 1947 comedy “Juke Joint,” meanwhile, is genuinely comical but in an ironic way: Its humor, especially when Williams himself is on the screen, strongly recalls the humor of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” on TV a decade later. The irony is that “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” made by whites even though it featured black performers, was eventually attacked and removed from circulation on the ground that it promoted racial bias.
I think there was a good case for taking “Amos ‘n’ Andy” off the air at a time when blacks were fighting a hard (and still unfinished) battle against bigotry. But it’s interesting to see nearly identical humor in slightly earlier films that were made by blacks for specifically black audiences, possibly testimony to the limits on black freedom or the black self-image. It’s also enlightening to see those movies in the context of Williams’ brief but distinctive career. Like no other film maker, he overcame the limitations of restricted resources to make a body of work that represents a proud and unmistakable alternative to the Hollywood and TV establishments.
The New American Film and Video Series continues at the Whitney with “AIDS Media: Counter-Representations,” a varied program on the AIDS crisis. Later this season the museum will present work by Yoko Ono. Springtime will bring the important Whitney Biennial Selection of ground-breaking film and video works.