PRINT September 2015


Thom Andersen’s Juke

Thom Andersen, Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams, 2015, digital video, black-and-white, sound, 30 minutes. Frame from Spencer Williams’s Juke Joint, 1947.

SOMETIME IN THE MID-1930S, Joseph Cornell acquired a 16-mm print of the 1931 Universal adventure film East of Borneo, which he distilled and reshuffled, transmuting back-lot make-believe into a nineteen-minute documentary portrait of its star and namesake, Rose Hobart (1936). Thom Andersen’s Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams is a related enterprise.

A thirty-minute montage of material from the oeuvre of the African American filmmaker and actor Spencer Williams (1893–1969)—commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art as part of the film sidebar to “One Way Ticket,” an exhibition contextualizing Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration” series (on view through September 7)—Juke, like Rose Hobart, is consecrated to its enigmatic subject: a veteran of Broadway and Hollywood who wrote, directed, and appeared in the most resilient and popular of “race” films, The Blood of Jesus (1941).

Born in Vidalia, Louisiana, a small town across the Mississippi River from Natchez, Williams was mentored on Broadway by the African American blackface vaudevillian Bert Williams (no relation) and arrived in Hollywood in the late ’20s, where he acted in and wrote scenarios for a series of two-reel race comedies at Paramount. He had bit roles in a few Hollywood movies and, in the late ’30s, appeared as a featured player in a number of all-black westerns and B movies; in the ’40s, he wrote and directed ten independent race features, starting with The Blood of Jesus. (Most have survived; Andersen samples six in Juke.)

Despite Williams’s success as a filmmaker, his brief New York Times obituary credits only his appearance as Andrew Brown in seventy-eight episodes of the early-’50s TV sitcom Amos ’n Andy. Still, twenty-two years after his death, The Blood of Jesus—a true cult film that played for years in segregated theaters and church basements—was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, as well it ought to have been. There is nothing in cinema quite like it. After a great cross appears in the clouds and a Baptist church choir sings, an elegiac prologue declares that the Golden Age, “when peace ruled the Earth with a firm and gentle hand,” is almost gone. A brief shot of a black farmer, lifted from Roman Freulich’s 1936 off-Hollywood short Broken Earth, gives way to a baptismal procession wending its way down to the river through characterless scrub country—long takes and a hypnotic, keening rendition of “Amazing Grace” give this stark footage a spiritual intensity suggestive of Dreyer or Bresson.

The film’s heroine, Martha (Cathryn Caviness, a charming amateur actress who never made another film), is baptized. She is sanctified but not yet saved. On her return home, she is critically wounded by an inadvertent blast from a shotgun belonging to her no-account husband (Williams). As she hovers between life and death, her soul leaves her body and is taken by an angel to seek salvation.

Martha finds herself alone on a country road; a laughing Satan in a satin costume-party getup enlists a handsome traveling salesman named Judas Green (Frank H. McClennan) to lead her into temptation. In a dreamlike condensation of narrative causality, Green sells Martha to the proprietor of a backwoods bawdy house; she is saved from prostitution by the timely reappearance of her angel at the sort of crossroads where a bluesman like Robert Johnson might have sold his soul to the devil. Lying beneath the cross as Jesus’s blood drips down on her upturned, ecstatic face, Martha awakens from her coma.

If Spencer Williams was sui generis, Thom Andersen, too, is a singular filmmaker, a nonacademic academic whose work is rooted in the ’60s avant-garde and whose feature-length films, typically predicated on the use of found footage, are closer to essays than to documentaries. Complete with a quotation from Chairman Mao, his hour-long Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1974) effectively converts the nineteenth-century producer of animated motion studies into a ’70s serial photographer or structural filmmaker. Red Hollywood (1995), made in collaboration with the filmmaker and historian Noël Burch, revises the history of the American Left by taking the allegations of the House Un-American Activities Committee at their word: The film presents clips from mostly little-known studio movies of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s as evidence of their blacklisted makers’ progressive politics. Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) is a nearly three-hour epic that treats the world’s most photographed city (where “a place can become a historic landmark because it was once a movie location”) as a Hollywood character actor.

Juke is a trickier proposition. Modestly, Andersen credits himself only with the movie’s “concept” and, along with Andrew Kim, its editing, and he immediately focuses on Williams’s self-presentation. The opening shots show the actor in three different roles, and others are referenced throughout: Williams appears as a tough juke-joint manager, a helpful cab driver, and, most bizarrely, a cross-dressed voodoo lady (playing opposite the beautiful Francine Everett) in his own Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946).

Andersen also focuses on Williams as a director. He draws attention to the filmmaker’s eccentricities (a fondness for close-ups of moving feet, something shared with Bresson) but, more crucially, he shows the ways in which Williams inscribed himself in the movie’s action. At one point, Andersen includes a shot of an amiable Williams seated in a theater, enthusiastically responding to some unseen action onstage; in another sequence, a more sardonic Williams stands watching two men scuffle with a knife in somebody’s living room.

Just as the recent Museo del Barrio exhibition on Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa presented thematic montages that effaced the plotlines of the films Figueroa shot in order to emphasize his presence as a visual artist, Andersen subtracts narrative from the clips he deploys in Juke—the better to ponder Williams’s locations—freezing images of small-town storefronts, rural cabins, and austerely decorated parlors into compositions that suggest the sharecropper mise-en-scène of Walker Evans’s photographs for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

Williams’s generally quiet domestic interiors alternate with rowdier pool halls, juke joints, and nightclubs. Andersen includes numerous dance sequences—couples jitterbugging to “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” a Lindy Hop exhibition rendered in silent slow motion, and a blatantly erotic Afro-Cuban floor show. At times, these, along with religious material from The Blood of Jesus and Go Down, Death! (1944), are juxtaposed with a patriotic performance from Marching On! (1943) filmed at Fort Huachuca, the Arizona base for the US Army’s black regiments.

In a way, Andersen follows Williams’s lead in mixing and matching found material. The Blood of Jesus incorporated not only music and images from Broken Earth but special effects from an unidentified Bible film; Go Down, Death! appropriated footage from the 1911 Italian superspectacular L’inferno (most likely by way of the 1936 exploitation film Hell-A-Vision). But Juke is as much interpretation as appropriation.

Many have pondered the enigma of Spencer Williams. Thomas Cripps, the first scholar to tackle the Williams’s oeuvre, called The Blood of Jesus “an anatomy of black salvationism and rural values”; he understood the movie as an extension of the evangelists James and Eloyce Gist’s dramatized sermons, and compared Williams to Grandma Moses. Adrienne Lanier Seward, who related the structure and visual rhetoric of The Blood of Jesus to the religious folk-drama Heaven Bound (1930), credited Williams with developing “a deeply rooted cultural alternative to Hollywood formulas for shaping and defining a black film aesthetic.” Pondering the sinner roles Williams assigned himself in The Blood of Jesus and Go Down, Death!, Greg Tate thought the filmmaker an “absurdist” and “disciple of the Yoruba trickster god Eshu/Elegba, capable of serving two or more masters at once.” Judith Weisenfeld, author of a recent book on African American religion in American cinema, makes a case for Williams’s seriousness as a moralist; Jacqueline Stewart, who is writing a book on Williams, has compared him to Tyler Perry, as a cosmopolitan artiste working for a religious audience.

Andersen’s choice of title suggests that he, too, is celebrating Williams as an entertainer (juke, possibly having passed from Wolof into the Gullah language as a term for “disorderly,” has been used as a noun at least since the ’30s to describe an establishment offering drink, music, and dancing, and also as a verb, originating around the same time on African American campuses, meaning “to party”) but also as a preservationist. Cult film that it is, The Blood of Jesus has another fan base predicated on the fleeting presence of the East Texas bluesman and radio personality B. K. Turner, known professionally as Black Ace. In his most subtle yet extensive intervention into Williams’s footage, Andersen substitutes a long version of Black Ace’s Hawaiian-style steel-guitar blues-boogie “Golden Slipper,” recorded after the retired musician was rediscovered by white blues enthusiasts in 1960, for the tantalizing fragment heard in the original movie.

I once called The Blood of Jesus “a masterpiece of folk cinema.” After seeing Juke, I’d call it a masterpiece of “syncretic” filmmaking. Like cult films from The Wizard of Oz to Star Wars, Williams’s is a succession of privileged moments, as well as an amalgamation of various forms and attitudes—gospel and blues, documentary recording and special-effects razzmatazz, sacred sermonizing and commercial plugs. Black Ace’s number, which references a Fort Worth juke joint by name and address (“Come on, mama, let’s truck on down / to the Golden Slipper and break ’em down / 913 on Taylor Street / they got good whiskey and plenty pig meat”) might well have been an ad on his radio show.

Rose Hobart transcends its source in part by fabricating new mysteries. (I saw East of Borneo many years ago and have been trying to unsee it ever since.) Juke, by contrast, inspires the viewer to see more, and think harder about the enigma, of Spencer Williams. Andersen’s homage may be less an autonomous movie than a footnote, but, artful as it is, it’s no less of a movie for that.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.