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Travelling to heaven or hell in ‘race films’  

17 February 2017

Stephen Brown has an introduction to African-American cinema

Handsome villain: Paul Robeson as the escaped convict the Revd Isaiah Jenkins in Body and Soul (1925)

Handsome villain: Paul Robeson as the escaped convict the Revd Isaiah Jenkins in Body and Soul (1925)

FORGIVE my ignorance, but I had assumed that early cinema invariably portrayed black Americans as servants, farmhands, or porters. It is delightful to discover a vibrant alternative.

Pioneers of African-American Cinema (Cert. 12) is a five-disc (DVD or Blu-ray) box set of digitally restored “race films” made between 1915 and 1946. We are talking of something distinct from Hollywood’s black-cast films such as The Green Pastures or Carmen Jones. Race films star African Americans, funded, written, produced, edited, distributed, and often exhibited by people of colour. Many have overtly Christian themes.

Not all portray the Church favourably. Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) made more than 40 films, founding his own company to do so. Body and Soul (1925) features Paul Robeson playing the Revd Isaiah Jenkins, an alcoholic ex-convict preying, materially and sexually, on his flock and his brother Sylvester, a decent working man.

Both seek a young woman’s affection. Miscegenation is not presented as an issue. It appears perfectly normal that she is white and the men are not. Micheaux’s target here is a corrupt church hierarchy. Rather than offer temporary solace to worshippers, religion should proclaim justice for the oppressed.

Another prolific African-American film technician was Spencer Williams, known for playing Andy in the Amos ’n’ Andy television series. His first outing as a director was a religious drama, The Blood of Jesus (1941), which used an amateur cast to depict what its publicity poster described as “A mighty epic of modern morals!” Church provided a self-contained black world far away from the racism that these Texas worshippers experienced daily.

The newly baptised Martha Ann Jackson (Cathryn Caviness) has her faith sorely tested as she lies dying. A liberal number of Negro spirituals carry the narrative along quite effectively, and, in a dream sequence, nobody seems phased by the appearance of angels with cardboard cut-out wings or Satan brandishing pitchfork and horns. Religious symbolism and surrealism merge seamlessly.

The box set also contains some shorter film material, often throwing light on black church life. There is an interesting excerpt from Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort South Carolina, May 1940 (1940). This documentary, directed by the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), shows religious services taking place in a Gullah community — the name given to those successors of slaves who managed to preserve much of their African cultural heritage.

Jacqueline Najuma Stewart’s interview (Religion in Early African-American Cinema) introduces us to films designed to be shown in churches alongside sermons. In the early 1930s, James Gist (a Christian evangelist) and his wife, Eloyce (of the Baha’i faith), made such films for this purpose. Each railway carriage in Hellbound Train contains those who have committed a mortal sin.

Tantalisingly, the film historian S. Torriano Berry discusses the Gists’ religious allegory Heaven-Bound Travelers, sections of which he has recently unearthed. There is also footage shot by the Revd Solomon Sir Jones, an Oklahoma Baptist, in which we see black church congregations at worship across the state. An illustrated 80-page book with essays and photos, and photo and film credits, accompanies the discs, which provide valuable insights into black churches and their social context.


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