Most film historians have exiled Spencer Williams to the fringes of cinema history, a situation based on both his race and the circumstances in which he worked. During the 1940s, he was the only prolific African American director – albeit in a series of cheaply-made, independently-produced features for a company out of Dallas that were distributed for exhibition in racially segregated cinemas serving the nation’s black population. The only other African American filmmaker of that era was the legendary Oscar Micheaux, but his 1940s output was limited to a pair of features, one from the beginning of the decade (“The Notorious Elinor Lee” from 1940) and one at the end of the decade (the 1949 “The Betrayal,” which is considered a lost film). But Williams turned out nine films between 1941 and 1947 – no mean feat for any filmmaker, and certainly an astonishing one for a nonwhite creative artist of the Jim Crow years.
Williams’ ascension to director was rooted in the combined forces of talent and luck. He began his career in the 1920s as a bit player in movies – he was an extra in Buster Keaton’s classic “Steamboat Bill, Jr”. – and he was able to land a gig writing scripts for a series of two-reel sound comedies for Al Christie’s comedy studio. The scripts were neither sophisticated nor sensitive – Christie was creating all-black comedies that relied on fractured English and perceived pretensions of upwardly mobile African Americans trying to become established in the middle class – but at least they helped to break a color barrier for black writers in Hollywood.
During the 1930s, Williams struggled in bit parts without any special recognition. He received another chance to write in 1939 when the assignment of creating a screenplay for the all-black Western “Harlem Rides the Range” came his way. The next year, he wrote the horror-comedy “Son of Ingagi” and also landed a supporting role in that production.
Williams’ talent attracted the attention of Alfred Sack, whose Dallas-based company Sack Amusement Enterprises distributed all-black films to the nation’s segregated theaters. Sack invited Williams to Dallas to write and star in a series of all-black films, and he also gave him the rare chance to serve as director. Although he was working at a fraction of the budget of a Hollywood-based independent film, Williams nonetheless created stories that could be adequately filmed under such tight financial circumstances.
The first Sack-produced film directed by Williams is now regarded as a classic: the 1941 feature “The Blood of Jesus,” made for only $5,000, took the audacious risk of breaking down of the tenets that rules the all-black “race films” for decades. Rather than create a secular and urban story, Williams put forth an unapologetically religious drama set in a rural Southern village. With its story of a dying woman’s soul being tempted by the lusty charms of Satan’s lieutenants and the ethereal promise of Christ’s kingdom, the resulting work was profoundly moving. And despite the obvious poverty of its budget, “The Blood of Jesus” resonated with uncommon poignancy and immediacy for its audiences – many of whom were either still living in rural areas or were recently relocated to cities as part of the great Negro Migration that shifted the black demographics across the country.
Sack would later recall “The Blood of Jesus” as “possibly the most successful of all Negro films,” and it would remain in circulation for years as both a theatrical offering as well as welcome presence (via 16mm prints) in black churches.
Sack obviously wanted to duplicate the success of “The Blood of Jesus” and encouraged Williams to rush into work on another religious film. But the result of that effort was probably the strangest work in the history of the race films.
For his second directing effort, Williams sought to create a biopic on the life of Martin de Porres (1579-1639), a Peruvian lay brother of the Dominican Order. De Porres was born in Lima as the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed African slave. Being of mixed race, he was prevented from becoming part of the Catholic clergy, although the Dominicans accepted him as a donado, which enabled him to live in the monastery and wear the monk’s habit while performing volunteer menial tasks. Despite years of insults from the priests for being illegitimate and of mixed race, de Porres never wavered in his faith and was credited for a series of miraculous healings in his lifetime. He was beatified in 1837, the first time that a person of African heritage from the Americas was elevated to such a holy stature within the Catholic Church. (Pope John XXIII elevated him further to sainthood in 1962.)
For Williams’ production, the impact of de Porres’ healing powers was brought to a contemporary African American setting, with Williams playing a devout man who finds guidance and comfort in the miracles attributed to the Peruvian holy man. The film – which carried the title “Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus” – was certainly a gamble, as black Catholics represented a minority within a minority, while white audiences would not be reached by this all-black production. (It is not known if Williams was Catholic or how he came to become involved with this subject.)
It is difficult to determine the exact approach that Williams took with this project, as no extant copy of the film or the screenplay exists. For years, the only tantalizing clue of the film’s existence was a bold poster featuring an oversized image of the crucified Jesus, along with a pair of stills from the film: one features Williams with a little girl, the other with a black doctor and black nurse caring for a bed-stricken patient that resembles Williams. The poster’s text promises audiences that they will be watching “the story of a Negro that loved God” while hearing the celebrated hymn “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” There is no picture showing how the film may have depicted de Porres, or even a clue that there was any re-enactment of de Porres’ life.
In 2007, film scholar Judith Weisenfeld produced some intriguing hints regarding the contents of “Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus” in her book :Hollywood be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949.” Citing a rarely-seen surviving trailer of the film, Weisenfeld identifies the girl in the poster as the niece of Williams’ character. The film uses a conversation between the child and the adult on the life of de Porres as the crux of the story, with Williams’ uncle character praising “Blessed Martin” for saving his life. The trailer also includes a portion of “Kyrie Eleison” as well as footage as blacks and white in the same Catholic religious service – the latter being a highly unusual consideration, since white were rarely seen in the race films of this era, let along being seen in prayer with blacks.
“Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus” is the only film directed by Williams that is now considered lost, which is a shame because the director’s subsequent works never reached the level of artistry and mature subject matter as “The Blood of Jesus.” Williams would make one additional religious film, the egregiously inept “Go Down Death” (1944) before concentrating on run-of-the-mill comedies and melodramas. Sack Amusements went out of business by the end of the 1940s, with Williams’ films being scattered as a result of the company’s states rights distribution business. Williams would have probably disappeared into obscurity had luck not struck one last time: in 1951, he landed the role of Andrew Brown in the controversial TV version of “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” which gave him access to wider (and white) audience that his Sack films never provided. Williams died in 1969, right before modern film scholars rediscovered the historic value of “The Blood of Jesus” and sought to create a niche for his contributions to African American film history.
If “Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus” is ever rediscovered, it is possible that it will emerge by accident – not unlike the 1983 discovery of a collection of 400 long-lost all-black films that were found in a warehouse in Tyler, Texas, which included several of Williams’ films. Until such time that this lost work returns, its absence presents an aching void in the Williams canon.
(This article is adapted from Phil Hall’s upcoming book “In Search of Lost Films,” to be published by BearManor Media.)