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How to Watch The Blood of Jesus:
The Blood of Jesus was advertised as “A Mighty Epic of Modern Morals,” and it truly is. The story is about a wife and husband, Martha Ann Jackson and Razz Jackson (Cathryn Caviness and Spencer Williams) whose relationship is a bit shaky due to their differing religious views. When Razz accidentally shoots his own wife, in the hours after she embarks on a journey between life and death where an angel and Satan – via his crony Judas Green – (Rogenia Goldthwaithe, James B. Jones, and Frank H. McClennan respectively) compete for her soul.
Spencer gives us this beautiful tracking shot of a morning procession, building up a great sense of peace and stability before we learn via some concerned members of the congregation that Razz is skipping his own wife’s baptism. When one friend rushes to blanket Mary Ann upon her emergence to keep her from catching cold, we know the real reason for her urgency is to comfort her in the face of Razz’ absence.
The Blood of Jesus is a movie that cold opens with a sermon, procession, and baptism. With a cast of amateur actors and choir members, it gives us an important visual record and context of this Texas congregation’s experience in the 40s that keeps the film accessible and makes it historically important even beyond its dramatic achievements. This is a short movie by modern standards, but Williams (doing double duty here as both the film’s directory and a major character) doesn’t skimp on taking time to establish the importance of the story’s events to the film’s community.
Williams’ portrayal of Razz, isn’t particularly flattering, but that’s not without purpose. Razz wants to provide for his wife, and his time away from the community during mass is spent not idling away, but hunting for food so they can live. Understandable, but he does this on the day of his wife’s baptism. Martha Ann is shown as accepting of Razz’ ways, but he’s rejected her faith pretty harshly here.
Caviness is very effective at switching up personalities as her faith and earthly desires compete.
The Blood of Jesus was made on a $5,000 budget, and the film was not cast with professional actors, but Williams’ artful direction adds so much more to the story. We can see how Razz’ lack of faith has been quietly devastating to Martha Ann, with his absence on this fateful day being a final straw that drives her to an isolation Razz doesn’t even notice. It’s easy to read her journey through purgatory as her turning away from her faith not because of the devil’s temptations, but because she’s given up on Razz. The strong gospel soundtrack, courtesy of R.L. Robertson and The Heavenly Choir, really adds to this. And while it was of course done due to budgetary limitations, there’s even some footage borrowed from the 1911 film L’Inferno used to depict some of the film’s otherworldly events. Caviness is able to stay hopeful throughout most of the ordeal, and while this was her only film role, the performance she gives is a perfect fit for it.
Effects shots throughout are genuinely impressive for a $5,000 1941 film.
All of this adds up to a movie built on the fulfillment two characters can potentially get from the intersection of their faith and community. During the opening scene’s baptisms, Williams shoots the action to emphasize not just the wrote execution of the procession and ceremony, but the togetherness of those viewing it, this is powerful stuff. His approaching every aspect of the film by focusing on the “spirit” of the religion rather than the letter gives it an accessibility that makes it easy to see why this is one of the most successful independent films ever made.