It’s weird to see an American movie from 1941 that’s so domestic. Despite there having been a depression and the beginning of another World War in the time between, the small town depicted in The Blood of Jesus doesn’t feel that different from the one in Body and Soul. What is different is this filmmaker’s approach to religion: while Oscar Michaeux had been skeptical and condemned hypocrisy, writer-producer-director-co-star Spencer Williams (later of Amos ‘n’ Andy fame) plays it deeply sanctimonious. And that makes it kinda hard to take seriously.
First of all, credit where credit’s due. The Blood of Jesus was shot for $5,000 and came out the same year as Citizen Kane, which had 168 times the budget. The production was so shoestring that Williams even resorted to using footage from the 1911 Italian silent film L’Inferno to show heaven. The cast were amateur actors who manage to bring it when it really counts. There are a few genuinely striking and stylish moments. I think the fact that this movie can be positively compared to Welles’ masterpiece at all is a testament to its power.
But there are parts of this movie that made me laugh and I’m not sure they’re supposed to. In the first scene of the movie, baptisms are being performed. One man claims to have seen a snake, runs out of the lake without being baptized, then hauls ass out of town. To me, that was funny, but I think that maybe a southern baptist audience would view that as a demonstration of the holy spirit’s influence? Later, when a character lies in her deathbed with her eyes toward heaven, it also kind of looks like she’s just doing the biggest eyeroll of all time. It was hilarious to see her husband and her fellow churchgoers huddle around her in her cramped bedroom and eulogize her while she looks like she just can’t even.
And then there’s Satan. That crafty devil is played by James B. Jones in basically pajamas and a cape, and he’s great. He seems like he’s just having so much fun trying to seduce this poor woman to choose eternal damnation that I just can’t imagine anyone actually considering this character a threat. He’s the best, he doesn’t seem to pose any sort of threat at all.
Even trying to write out the plot on paper might sound kind of amusing. On the day of her baptism, Sister Martha Ann Jackson (Cathryn Caviness) seems a little self-conscious that the gossipy churchgoers have noticed her husband’s (Spencer Williams) absence. When she goes home, he accidentally shoots her! The bullet goes straight through and hits her Jesus portrait. This is when the eyeroll thing happens, then an angel (Rogenia Goldthwaite) appears and tries to guide Martha’s spirit into the afterlife.
As Martha begins walking the path, Satan sends Judas (Frank H. McClennan) to seduce her. Judas offers her a fancy dress and shoes, then takes her to a nightclub to watch jazz and an acrobat? I don’t know what you’d call a woman in poofy pants doing cartwheels and splits. Judas tries to get her a job, I think? And Martha gets sad and decides to flee. The other patrons think Martha robbed them, so they chase her all the way to the crossroads of Hell and Zion.
That’s nearly the entire plot, since The Blood of Jesus is only 57 minutes long. And, you know what? I didn’t really want to watch a long conservative religion movie anyway. Instead, what I got was a movie I found pretty entertaining. It’s jam-packed with gospel music standards, which have all clearly stood the test of time. And the ending image, which brings in the literal blood of Jesus, is one that will stick with me for a while. Viewing cinematic history can often feel like a chore, what a pleasant surprise The Blood of Jesus was.