This week in F.I.L.M.: celebrating the career of African-American cineaste Spencer Williams

By Ghada Emish ’19

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F.I.L.M. is not only dedicated to screening important films, but also celebrating the careers of talented, yet obscure filmmakers. Spencer Williams is an African-American who managed to build a strong career in media during the first half of the 20th Century. This Sunday, March 5, Jacqueline Stewart, professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago, will bring Williams’ career out from the shadows into light.

Stewart’s presentation is informed as she is currently finishing a book about Williams. Her book, Migrating to the Movies (2005), is a breakthrough in the study of the imaging of African Americans in the early years of cinema. A recent book she co-edited, L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), won the 2017 Society for Cinema and Media Studies award for Best Edited Collection. She is sure to entertain the audience with her engaging presentation skills and expert knowledge. 

Williams did not allow his lack of money to hinder him from producing his film, Blood of Jesus (1941). He produced the film without assistance from any production company. Blood of Jesus was created on a budget of $5,000, at the time a Hollywood film directed by Hitchcock cost $1.2 million. In the early 20th century, when African-American directors were not supported by the white film industry, they had to be entirely independent in their production of films. Such directors have given American cinema a rich history to be explored and lessons to be learned about personal and professional resilience. 

Unfortunately, not many details concerning William’s life, such as his education and source of inspiration, are widely known. Stewart will examine the development of William’s career starting from a 5-second appearance in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) to writing, directing and starring in Blood of Jesus. She will show excerpts from his works, including the famous sitcom Amos ‘n’ Andy (1951)—Williams played Andy on that controversial television series. 

Sometimes referred to as The Glory Road, Blood of Jesus is a race film, meaning it was released for an all-black audience in specified theatres. The production of race films lasted from 1915 to early 1950s and ended when African Americans slowly began to be integrated into different aspects of white society, including the film industry. 

According to Professor Scott MacDonald, chair of the Cinema and Media Studies department, race films enabled African American filmmakers to engage and discuss topics that specifically concerned black audience. The Blood of Jesus celebrates the colorful and vocal nature of Southern Baptism. The film emphasizes the importance of choir to black Baptists and demonstrates their dedication to their religion. On the other hand, jazz music is represented as a sin-inciting element in an afterlife nightclub, which asserts the connection between jazz and sin in religious thought.  

Amos ‘n’ Andy started as a radio show, then was adapted for TV. Seen by many African Americans as dealing in obnoxious stereotypes, the series was widely popular but lasted only two years before being cancelled. Williams and his colleagues on the show were criticized for their involvement in it—though a show about African Americans was a rarity on television during that era.

In her presentation, Professor Stewart will demonstrate the fundamental role Williams’ career plays in the history of black cinema and culture.

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