SINNERS & SAINTS

Black Religion in Film

This exhibit traces major themes and moments in the history of cinematic representations of black religious beliefs, practices, institutions, and individuals. Religion has been one of the most significant elements of the lives of people of African descent across time and space. It affords opportunities to reflect on questions of ultimate meaning, forms the basis of community identity for many, and provides individual fulfillment through connection to the divine. Religious practices have set the stage for profound creative developments among African Americans, particularly in the musical forms of spirituals and gospel and in the verbal arts demonstrated in black preaching traditions. Religious institutions have also fostered resistance to racism and supported political engagement, most notably in the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements. It would be difficult to imagine relating the story of African-American history and culture without including such significant religious figures as Sojourner Truth, Richard Allen, Nannie Helen Burroughs, William J. Seymour, Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X. African-American religious traditions have been diverse and often distinctive, ranging from African-derived practices, a wide variety of forms of Christianity and Islam, to creative new religious movements. It is no surprise, then, that filmmakers turn to the dramatic images of African-American preaching, to the emotional resonance of black religious service, or to the spiritual power of African-derived magical practices for subject matter.

American films have often reproduced common stereotypes of black religion that have contributed powerfully to ideas about race in America and to the practices of racism. In early film it was common for black characters to be portrayed by white actors in blackface makeup, and many films presented "black" characters engaged in exaggerated, overly-physical worship. In addition, white filmmakers have often distorted the hope for divine justice so central to black Christian theology and presented black religious thought as either childish, entirely other-worldly, or some combination of the two. The practical effect of such representations was the promotion of the idea that the religious beliefs and practices of African Americans provide evidence of their unfitness of for full citizenship. Another common theme in early Hollywood approaches to representing black religion has been the use of African or African-derived traditions, especially Vodou (Voodoo) and Santería, as signs of involvement with demonic forces. Such films implied, through their characterizations of black religion, that African, Afro-Caribbean, and African American people represent a dangerous element in the western societies. Some of the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s revisited these themes and incorporated images of African-derived religions into the horror genre.

Hollywood studios did not always engage in the production and circulation of stereotypical images of African-derived and African-American religious practices. In the years during and just following the Second World War, for example, some filmmakers tried to make the movies serve as a force for social change. In a group of films that have come to be called "message movies," Hollywood studios explored racism, anti-Semitism, and broader practices of prejudice and discrimination. A number of the films about racism imagined and explored the problems of light-skinned African Americans, some of whom choose to pass as white. While these movies often received positive critical attention, black audiences generally found their emphasis on such a narrow range of experience to be ineffective in addressing racism in everyday life. During the Civil Rights era, black and white artists used film to engage racial justice in more political modes than had the earlier "message movies." More recently, a number of documentaries, some by black filmmakers, have highlighted the power of African-American religious expression and explored historical events in which religious figures and institutions played important parts. These have contributed to our knowledge and understanding of the power of religion in African-American history.

Film viewers have also encountered religious themes and characters in early all-black-cast movies that were made for black audiences and often by black filmmakers. In many cases, religious issues were incorporated into dramas, comedies, or musicals as tangential elements of the films' plots. In addition, a number of films by black filmmakers survive that provide exciting examples of explicitly religious movies. These films sought to convey theological concepts, to encourage Christian commitment, and to provide entertainment that was considered safe and appropriate within religious communities. More recently, independent black filmmakers have explored the variety of African-American religious experiences and expressions in films in dramatic films, some of which explore the politics and religious practices of the past, and others that seek to convey a religious message.

The posters in this exhibit invite you to consider the power of spirituality in African-American history and to think about how the movies have imagined black religion.

Judith Weisenfeld

HALLELUJAH

HALLELUJAH

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1929


Hallelujah marked a turning point for African Americans in film. It was the second all-black cast film produced by a major Hollywood studio and the first sound film by white writer and director King Vidor. Although Fox released Hearts in Dixie earlier that year, Hallelujah proved more successful - Vidor was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director - and would have a more powerful influence on American film audiences.

The film's story follows the fortunes of Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes), a sharecropper who falls into a trap set by Chick (Nina Mae McKinney) and her boyfriend. Zeke's gullibility brings about his brother's death, which moves him to repent and become a preacher. His revivals are so powerful that even Chick converts after hearing him preach. Zeke falls prey to Chick's lures again, but the film's conclusion returns him to his family and his farming life with the expectation that he will marry the simple and pious Missy Rose (Victoria Spivey).

Hallelujah became a lightning rod for discussion among African Americans about the impact of film images of their collective religious life on their political and social opportunities. Many black critics acknowledged the potential benefit of a major Hollywood studio's production of a film about black life and culture, particularly one that featured moving presentations of black spirituals and blues by Eva Jessye's Dixie Jubilee Singers.

At the same time, most noted, the film's representation of black religion emphasized childish emotionalism, which many white film critics argued confirmed the inherent and permanent backwardness of black people. Hallelujah nevertheless demonstrated to Hollywood the talents of black performers and showed the artistic possibilities of stories focused on black religious life.

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THE BLACK KING

THE BLACK KING

Southland Pictures, 1932


The Black King (aka Harlem Hot Shot) was one of a number of dramatic satires produced in the 1930s of the career of Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The film, made by a white production company for African American audiences, was based on the play The Black King by Trinidadian immigrant writer, director, and composer Donald Heywood. Heywood had already contributed to representations of African American religions with his 1932 Broadway play, Ol' Man Satan, an attempt to capitalize on the success of Marc Connelly's 1930 The Green Pastures.

Using Garvey's hopes for a "back to Africa" movement, The Black King casts its main character, Deacon Charcoal Johnson (A. B. Comathiere), as a religious figure who manipulates the gullible members of the Rise and Shine Baptist Church of Logan Mississippi into following him. Encouraging the congregation to force the elderly Deacon Jones (Harry Gray) to retire and elect him their leader, Johnson promises to "deliver them from the shackles of superstition and old time darkiness" and lead them to a "land of milk and honey" where they will no longer have to work. Amassing a large following as he moves north in anticipation of sailing to Africa, Johnson engages in more and more elaborate pomp and pageantry. When he is revealed in the end to be a charlatan, his followers abandon him and move on to the next appealing religious leader.

The film is rife with religious and racial stereotypes, and Heywood's script has Charcoal speaking at times in barely recognizable English. While some black commentators felt that a satirical exploration of the dynamics of Garvey's mass movement had dramatic potential, the critical response to the film was uniformly negative.

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THE GREEN PASTURES

THE GREEN PASTURES

Warner Bros., 1936


The next in the cycle of all-black cast films by Hollywood studios following Hallelujah, The Green Pastures is the film version of white playwright Marc Connelly's Pulitzer prize-winning play. Premiering on Broadway in 1930, the production went from a long run in New York to a national and then an international tour before returning to Broadway. Warner Bros. acquired the rights to make a film and signed Connelly and William Keighley to direct.

The Green Pastures presents stories from the Hebrew Scriptures as told by a black New Orleans minister to his Sunday School class and sets them in an African-American context. With "De Lawd" (Rex Ingram) as the central character, the film follows this God in the form of a rural preacher from a fish fry in Heaven with Gabriel (Oscar Polk) and the angels to his interactions with his creations on earth, including Noah (Eddie Anderson) and Moses (Frank H. Wilson). The production also includes a large number of African-American spirituals, arranged by Hall Johnson and performed by his choir.

As with Hallelujah, the critical response to the Warner Bros. film often split on racial lines. Many white critics embraced Connelly's production as presenting the "authentically" childlike theological perspective of African-Americans. Many black critics, religious leaders, and filmgoers were deeply uncomfortable with Connelly's claim that African Americans envisioned God and the Bible in such narrow terms, even as they applauded the actors' performances.

When Connelly attempted to revive the play on Broadway in 1951, with a cast that included Ossie Davis, a prominent bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church called for a boycott. Twenty years after the initial production, theater audiences did not respond favorably to the revival, and the show closed after less than a month. Nevertheless, The Green Pastures cast a long shadow over the history of film representations of African American religion and served as the standard of success against which other productions were measured. For many African Americans, however, its presentation of black theology has established a set of mythologies that constitute a significant hurdle to overcome in the popular imagination.

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SUNDAY SINNERS

SUNDAY SINNERS

Colonnade Pictures Corporation, 1941


The musical comedy Sunday Sinners is part of the body of films made by white production companies for black audiences that used religious characters and themes. The film's story pits Rev. Hampton (Earl Sydnor), a Methodist minister, against the owners of the Club Harlem, which is attracting the town's young people to its Sunday night activities.

Unlike many other race films in which the church and the worldly entertainments of the nightclub remain perpetually at war, Sunday Sinners presents a compromise. Once Corinne (Edna Mae Harris), one of the club's owners, is exposed as a criminal and adulterer, her husband Gene (Norman Astwood) agrees to close the club on Sunday nights. In return, Rev. Hampton, presented as a modern and moderate minister, agrees to end his campaign against the club.

The film was based on a story by African American actor Frank Wilson, who wrote a number of other stories that featured ministers and were adapted for the screen. The German-born director Arthur Dreifuss had already made a number of other "race movies" by this time, including Mystery in Swing (1940) and Murder on Lenox Avenue (1941), the latter film featuring blues singer Mamie Smith. Smith, who played a small role in Sunday Singers, got top billing because of her great fame at the time. In this period film audiences had the opportunity to see her in a number of other "race films" produced by her husband, Jack Goldberg.

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THE BLOOD OF JESUS

THE BLOOD OF JESUS

Sack Amusement Enterprises, 1941


Throughout the 1940s, African American actor and director Spencer Williams worked with white producer Alfred N. Sack to make a number of "race films" for black audiences. Williams, who was known from his appearances in the 1930s in a number of black-cast Westerns (and would later play Andrew Hog Brown in the television show Amos 'n' Andy), took the opportunity of Sack's financial support to make three explicitly religious films. The central themes in all of his religious films are the promise of individual transformation through Christian belief in the workings of God's grace, the reality of the divine presence in the lives of individuals, and the just punishment of those who fail to reform.

The Blood of Jesus, the first of Williams' religious films, follows the travails of Martha Jackson (Cathryn Caviness) whose husband Ras (Spencer Williams) refuses to have anything to do with the church. On the day that Martha is baptized Ras returns from hunting and accidentally shoots her. The majority of the film's story focuses on the progress of Martha's soul back to her body. Her Angel guide (Rogenia Goldthwaite) directs her to pass through the city, with all the devil's temptations, to reach the crossroads. In the film's climax, Martha falls at the foot of a road sign that transforms into a crucifix and she is returned to her body by Jesus' blood, which drips onto her face.

Williams' use of special effects to represent the shadowy world between life and death and to illuminate objects of special spiritual power makes his religious films particularly powerful. In addition to pursuing an evangelical story of individual transformation, The Blood of Jesus incorporates prominent elements of Catholic visual culture, most notably crucifixes and an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

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BROTHER MARTIN, SERVANT OF JESUS

BROTHER MARTIN, SERVANT OF JESUS

Jenkins-Bourgeois, 1942


Following the success of his 1941 The Blood of Jesus, Spencer Williams produced a second religious film that presented the life story and posthumous miracles of Martin de Porres, a sixteenth-century Dominican lay brother who was the son of an enslaved African woman and a Spanish nobleman in Peru. In 1962 Brother Martin would become the first black saint from the Americas, but when Williams produced this film, Martin had not yet been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. He had, however, been beatified, or declared blessed and worthy of veneration by the faithful, and Williams crafted the film's narrative around the intercession of Blessed Martin to save the life of Jed (Spencer Williams), the main character.

No print of Brother Martin, Servant of Jesus survives and the available advertising trailer and poster provide little information about the details of the film's story. That Spencer Williams produced a film about a Roman Catholic brother underscores his intense interest in Catholic theology and images and it is important as one of relatively few films made by black filmmakers to directly address Catholic themes. There is no direct evidence that Williams was Catholic, but it is possible. At the very least, his childhood in Vidalia, Louisiana and his military service in Europe in World War I would have exposed him to Roman Catholic theology and cultures, even as he was also clearly steeped in Protestant evangelical theology.

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GO DOWN, DEATH

GO DOWN, DEATH

Sack Amusement Enterprises, 1944


The third of Spencer Williams' religious films, Go Down Death takes its title from a poem in James Weldon Johnson's 1927 collection of sermonic poems, God's Trombones. The story involves the attempt of Jim Bottoms (Spencer Williams), a cabaret owner, to discredit Reverend Rhodes, the new pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church and who has been preaching against the "ungodly" activities that take place in the clubs. Jim has his "fly chicks" trick the minister into a compromising position and he takes incriminating photographs. Sister Caroline, Jim's adoptive mother and a faithful member of the church, intervenes to aid her minister and dies accidentally in a struggle with Jim over the photographs. Wracked by guilt but unable to reform himself, Jimdies with the tormenting voice of the devil driving him insane.

As with his earlier film, The Blood of Jesus, Williams takes full advantage of the visual possibilities of the medium by including creative illustrations of the images in Johnson's poem, which serves as the text of Caroline's funeral sermon. Most striking, however, is his incorporation of footage from the 1911 Italian silent film, L'Inferno, directed by Francesco Bertolini and Adolfo Padovan.

These graphic images of hell accompany the devil's torment of Jim and represent the sinner's final destination. Although the technique of using recycled footage was characteristic of sensationalist "exploitation" films, it was not unusual for directors of other kinds of low-budget films in this period to incorporate material from other films. Despite the fact that he did not film these scenes himself, Williams uses them in a way that speaks directly to his religious concerns about salvation and damnation.

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CABIN IN THE SKY

CABIN IN THE SKY

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1943


Based on the successful 1940 Broadway musical, MGM's Cabin the Sky tells the story of the efforts of Petunia (Ethel Waters) to reform her gambling husband Little Joe (Eddie Anderson) and keep him from the lures of Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). When Joe is shot in a dispute with his gambling buddies, a grand struggle takes place for his soul between the forces of Satan, represented by Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) and God's General (Kenneth Spencer). Joe is given six months to redeem himself and ensure entrance to the "cabin in the sky," and, with Petunia's help and prayers, he succeeds.

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the film contains lively musical sequences with choral arrangements by Hall Johnson. Unlike the earlier Hallelujah and The Green Pastures, Minnelli did not claim to be presenting a peculiarly African American religious perspective. Instead, he and the screenwriters relied on the structure of fables and fantasies to point to universal human issues. In general, the response from black and white critics was favorable, with black audiences and critics recognizing Minnelli's lighthearted and sympathetic portrait of a small community and enjoying the attention the production provided for black performers. At the same time, the fact that the film was released in a period of heightened concern about screen images of African Americans dampened enthusiasm for the production slightly.

Cabin the Sky hit theaters one year after the NAACP's Walter White's call for more varied and realistic representations of African Americans in Hollywood movies. The film's use of the commonplace black religious setting failed to move it far beyond typical approaches. In addition, while the release of the film provided welcomed entertainment for American audiences during World War II, some African Americans worried that the appeal to fantasy would overshadow their real contributions to the war effort and their struggle for victory against racism at home.

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GOING TO GLORY, COME TO JESUS

GOING TO GLORY, COME TO JESUS

Royal Gospel Productions, 1947


The success of religious "race movies" in the 1940s, particularly those made by Spencer Williams, motivated other film producers to contribute to this subgenre of the larger body of films produced for black audiences. The New York-based Royal Gospel Productions offered Going to Glory, Come to Jesus, which it characterized its advertising materials as a "momentous Motion Picture Masterpiece which brings out a message for everyone; a message which will reach the hearts of people of all ages," and "a magnificent motion picture to add new lustre to the screen!" Unfortunately, no print of the film survives, but the poster, lobby cards, and a script leave us with a strong sense of the movie's religious message, which emphasizes the spiritual dangers of materialism and the particular susceptibility of women to the devil's lures.

Lillie-Mae, the film's main character and daughter of Rev. Scott, is teased by her peers for being ugly, uninteresting, and badly dressed. She covets the beauty and clothing of one of her peers, and her desires bring forth the voice of the devil who promises her beauty and wealth in exchange for her soul. Convinced that no one will love her because she is ugly, Lillie-Mae agrees. When the devil, in the form of Prince O'Hades, capriciously takes away everything he had given her, Lillie-Mae seeks out the Prophet she had seen baptizing people in the river. Committing herself to Jesus, Lillie-Mae is saved and the audience learns that the events of the film took place while Lillie-Mae was in the throes of conversion.

Although Royal Gospel Productions' advertising materials indicate that it had two other religious films available for exhibition - Go Preach and Children of Jesus - no information about these or the production company survives.

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CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY

CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY

London Film Productions, 1951


Directed by Hungarian director Zoltán Korda, Cry, the Beloved Country is based on the critically-acclaimed 1948 novel by white South African writer Alan Paton who, with John Howard Lawson, provided the screenplay for the film adaptation. The film follows rural minister Rev. Stephen Kumalo (Canada Lee) as he searches for his sister and his son Absalom (Lionel Ngakane) in Johannesburg with the help of the younger and worldly Reverend Msimangu (Sidney Poitier). Kumalo is devastated to find his sister working as a prostitute and his son implicated in the murder of a white liberal activist. Cry, the Beloved Country explores racial discrimination and conflict through the dual lenses of politics and religion, and poses the possibility of racial unity through common Christian commitment as preferable to a purely political struggle.

Even as the novel and film focus explicitly on the emerging Apartheid system in South Africa, American critics and audiences could not help but draw parallels to legalized segregation in the American South at the time of the film's release. In addition, the casting of the Hollywood actors Canada Lee and Sidney Poitierin two of the lead roles invited such a comparison, and some reviewers also criticized American film studios for not taking on such significant topics.

The film was shot on location in South Africa - in and near Johannesburg and in a village near Durban - and Poitier and Lee saw first hand the poverty of black South Africans and experienced the same discrimination they faced, making the production a difficult one. Lee, who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy-era persecution of progressives in Hollywood, had only recently returned to the screen in the 1949 film Lost Boundaries. He died the following year at the age of 45.

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LILIES OF THE FIELD

LILIES OF THE FIELD

United Artists, 1963


Based on the 1962 novel by white Catholic writer William E. Barrett, Lilies of the Field follows Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier), an Army veteran and a devout Baptist, who is on the road in the southwest and working as a handyman. He is hired by a group of East German Catholic nuns to repair a roof at their farm in the Arizona desert. Mother Superior Maria (Lilia Skala) believes that Homer's arrival answers their prayers for assistance in building a chapel to serve the nearby townspeople. Even though Homer resists the sisters' interpretation of his presence, he finds himself moved by their life of simplicity.

In a scene in which the two trade Bible texts as Mother Maria makes clear that they cannot pay him in money for his work, she cites Jesus' words - "Consider the lilies of the field; they do not work, they do not spin; and yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his splendour was not attired like one of these" - to insist that God will provide. Once Homer commits to the project, his determination brings local Mexican Americans to help the sisters and the community get their chapel.

The film, for which Poitier won the Academy Award for Best Actor, speaks of and to the optimism of the Civil Rights movement, even as activists continued to meet with political resistance and violence. The character of Homer, aided by Poitier's growing reputation for playing professional leading men with complexity, marked an important turn away from older Hollywood images of African American religion as undignified and purely emotional.

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GONE ARE THE DAYS (PURLIE VICTORIOUS)

GONE ARE THE DAYS (PURLIE VICTORIOUS)

Hammer Films, 1963


With origins in the 1961 Broadway play by Ossie Davis, this satirical film explores the serious issues of racial segregation and the profound social, economic, and political restrictions the system placed on African Americans. Self-fashioned minister Purlie Victorious Judson (Ossie Davis) returns home to buy Big Bethel church back from plantation owner Ol' Cap'n Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee (Sorrell Brook), restore his grandfather's pulpit, and "preach freedom" in the cotton patch.

In order to do so, he must find a way to claim an inheritance and enlists his new love Lutiebelle (Ruby Dee) in his plan. They are aided by Cap'n Cotchipee's son Charley (Alan Alda), who has been raised by his nanny Ideilla (Beah Richards) to believe in racial equality and who eventually becomes the first white member of Purlie's integrated church.

Reversing the tradition of white filmmakers' uses of caricatures of southern African Americans, Davis' Cap'n Cotchipee embodies every stereotype of the white southerner who believes "his nigras" love him deeply. With his black characters Davis gestures to traditional representations, but uses humor to present a sharp critique of the racial practices of the old South, to emphasize connections with Africa, and to provide a powerful endorsement of the Civil Rights Movement.

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BUCK AND THE PREACHER

BUCK AND THE PREACHER

Columbia Pictures, 1972


Academy Award winning actor Sidney Poitier made his directorial debut with this film that follows the struggles of a group of former slaves from Louisiana who set out to Colorado to become landowners and escape the racism of the white South. Although frequently billed as a comedy, the film is framed as a classic Western with a strong dramatic narrative based on the experiences of the "Exodusters" who migrated west in the late 1870s. The scrolling title that begins the film locates its concerns firmly in the context of the post-Civil Rights era movement to restore to memory significant events in African American history.

Poitier plays Buck, a former Union Cavalry Sergeant who works as a wagonmaster leading groups of freedpeople west. He encounters a conman preacher (Harry Belafonte), who plans to steal the money with which the migrants expect to begin their new lives. The two men eventually team up, along with Buck's wife Ruth (Ruby Dee), when a group of white nightriders attack the migrants to try to force them back into sharecropping in Louisiana.

Perhaps the most interesting representation of religion in Buck and the Preacher comes with the character of Cudjo, a conjure man and the religious leader of the Louisiana migrants, who casts bones to help the community's members see the future and make decisions. Clarence Muse, an actor whose long career in Hollywood began with such early films as Fox's 1929 Hearts in Dixie, played the part of the conjurer.

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GANJA & HESS (aka DOUBLE POSSESSION)

GANJA & HESS (aka DOUBLE POSSESSION)

Kelly/Jordan Enterprises, 1973


Bill Gunn's complex allegorical tale that uses vampirism to engage a range of broader issues was long unavailable to the viewing public after its initial release. The producers decided to re-edit Gunn's work and market a shorter and more sensationalist version under the title Blood Couple. Fortunately, a version close to the original has been restored and follows Dr. Hess Green (James E. Hinton), an anthropologist and geologist, who is stabbed three times with a "diseased" dagger from the ancient (invented) black "Myrthian" civilization. The dagger makes him both immortal and addicted to blood and, when he falls in love with Ganja (Marlene Clark), he stabs her with the dagger to keep her with him forever.

While Hess becomes a vampire through his contact with an ancient black civilization, the film ties blood lust to Western Christian civilization and points to the enslavement of Africans as one marker of that bloodiness. Gunn links blood and Western Christian civilization by surrounding Hess with European Christian art that mediates on the blood of Christ.

He also makes this association through a voice-over narration by a Pentecostal minister whose church members glory in the saving power of Jesus' blood. In the end, Hess renounces his vampirism and seeks redemption in the church, which eventually enables him to die. Ganja, however, chooses to live on. Gunn's original version makes clear his interest in Hess's story as one of the implications of alienation from African roots. The church scenes, which feature members of the Evangel Revivaltime Church, are powerful and add texture to the film's exploration of the relationship between religion and race.

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ABBY

ABBY

American International Pictures, 1974


In making Abby in 1974 white writer and director William Girdler sought to capitalize on the success of William Friedkin's The Exorcist, which had been released the previous year. Girdler's film focuses on a young minister's wife (Carol Speed) who becomes possessed by an ancient West African demon that her father-in-law (William Marshall) unwittingly releases on an archaeological trip to Nigeria. Abby takes on the murderous and sexual characteristics of the demon and her father-in-law must exorcise it to save her.

Throughout most of the film the audience is led to understand the demonic force possessing Abby to be the Yoruba orisha (spirit) Eshu, who is a trickster, messenger, and guardian of the crossroads. In the end, however, the demon turns out to be a minor spirit rather than Eshu who the exorcist vanquishes through appeal to the real Eshu. Despite the fact that it presents some factual information about Yoruba religion, the film grossly misrepresents the West African tradition by equating the spirits with dangerous and frightening forces.

Despite the fact that Abby explicitly copied scenes from The Exorcist, in a low-budget version, audiences responded favorably. Abby did very well at the box office until the producers of the Exorcist, so disturbed by the similarities between the two films, sued Girdler and forced Abby out of circulation.

In addition to featuring veteran stage and screen performer William Marshall in a lead role, Abby also showcased Juanita Moore, best known for her portrayal of Annie Johnson in Douglas Sirk's 1956 version of Imitation of Life, as Abby's mother.

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SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY

SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY

United Artists Classics, 1982


George Nierenberg's lively documentary profiles gospel pioneers Professor Thomas A. Dorsey and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith late in their lives and careers. Set in the context of moving tributes to these towering figures of black religious music, the film reveals Dorsey and Smith as charismatic performers whose commitments to the evangelistic possibilities of song drives their work. The music and the performances are at the heart of this film, and Neirenberg lets them take center stage. At the same time, the film is rich in its presentation of musical history and it engages important issues about African American religious life.

Among the strongest themes in the film is the struggle of female gospel performers, both in the 1940s when Smith began her work and in the early 1980s when the film was made, to balance commitments to their families and their call to spread the gospel through music. In a moving scene Mother Smith counsels a younger gospel singer and tells her of the sacrifices she herself had to make in leaving her children at home while on the road.

In other scenes, Delois Barrett Campell labors to meet her husband's expectation that she should join him in the work of his small church even as her successful ministry as part of a gospel trio with her sisters is clearly where her calling lies. Mother Smith's tense disagreement with her grandson about his opposition the ordination of women provides insight into her insistence over the course of the film that gospel music is her avenue to serving as a minister of God.

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GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN

GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN

Mug-Shot Productions, 1984


Produced and directed by Robert Mugge, whose documentary career has focused on representing the power of music in culture, Gospel According to Al Green is an engaging portrait of the singer's transformation from soul superstar to minister and gospel evangelist.

Mugge filmed Green performing at a Black History Week concert for African-American non-commissioned Army officers and in his church, Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis. Mugge traces Green's rise to fame using interviews with music critics and with Willie Mitchell, Green's producer and collaborator for many years, to convey the sources of Green's enormous popularity and his unique contributions to American music.

In an engaging interview Green describes his conversion experience while asleep in a hotel room following a concert at Disneyland and his subsequent struggle to reconcile his "million-dollar career" with the growing sense of a call to Christian duty. He further recounts the traumatic experience of being burned with hot water and grits by a girlfriend who then shot herself, angry that he was not interested in marriage. Following these events, Green turned to ministry and gospel music full time, and the film's long segments of preaching and singing provide a strong sense of his religious conviction and enthusiasm, as well as of his tremendous talent.

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TO SLEEP WITH ANGER

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER

Samuel Goldwyn, 1990


The horror at the center of Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger arrives in the form of Harry (Danny Glover), an old friend of Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice), the grandparents of a Los Angeles family. Gideon and Suzie hold fast to many of the old ways of their southern origins, including devoted churchgoing and reliance on African-derived folk traditions.

Burnett foreshadows the conflict and evil that Harry brings with him by Gideon's announcement that he has lost his "toby," a protective charm that his grandmother had given him. Gideon and Suzie invite Harry to stay and to treat their house as his own and he proceeds to draw their youngest son, Babe (Richard Brooks), into his ways, to the detriment of the entire family. The loss of the protection of Gideon's "toby" amplifies the family's personal conflicts and bring illness and misfortune on which Harry thrives. It is, finally, the family's recognition of Harry's nature and their willingness to set aside their disagreements that strips him of his power over them.

Burnett's subtly frightening film presents a complex exploration of the power of folk beliefs and traditions and features an especially powerful performance from Glover.

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DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST

DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST

Kino International, 1991


The first feature film directed by an African American woman to receive theatrical release, Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust is a remarkable exploration of family, religion, and gender in an African diasporic context. Dash sets her film among a Gullah family in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia at the turn of the 20th Century - focusing on four generations of women - just as some family members are about to migrate North.

Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) does not understand why the younger generation would leave their home on Ibo Landing. For their part, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, born after the end of slavery, imagine new and better lives for themselves in the North. As they prepare to leave, Nana tries to make sure that they will hold on to tradition and honor family in their new home.

Daughters of the Dust is steeped in ritual and symbolism derived from West and Central African religious cultures, and the film recreates the setting of the Sea Islands in exquisite detail. The narrative is complex, using flashbacks and flashing forward in time to emphasize the spiritual connections between Africa and the diaspora.

In addition, Dash sometimes layers past, present, and future in a single frame through the presence of the character of the Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warren) who represents a Peazant ancestor soon to be reborn to Eli (Adisa Anderson) and Eula (Alva Rogers) Peazant. The vision of African diaspora spirituality presented in Daughters of the Dust is challenging and unique when examined in the context of the broader history of film representations of African American religious life.

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MALCOLM X

MALCOLM X

40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 1992


Featuring a riveting performance by Denzel Washington, Spike Lee's film presents a version of Malcolm X's life that is largely faithful to the autobiographical narrative written down by Alex Haley and published in 1965. Although Lee's interests lie primarily with Malcolm's political and intellectual development and contributions to the struggle for black empowerment, the religious aspects of Malcolm X's personal journey are also important to the film's story.

The first section of Lee's epic film covers the early years of Malcolm Little's life and the second follows him into prison where he learns the theology and political philosophy of the Nation of Islam. Convinced of the truth of the Nation of Islam's religious teachings and of the political value of its philosophy of black empowerment through racial separatism, Malcolm Little renounces his slave name and becomes a devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.). The film's portrayal of Malcolm's conversion and rise to prominence within the Nation of Islam is compelling, as is Lee's rendering of the spiritual transformation that results from Malcolm's disaffection from Elijah Muhammad and from his pilgrimage to Mecca.

The release of Malcolm X contributed greatly to the revival of interest in Malcolm as a political figure, and Lee's attempts to connect Malcolm's legacy to more recent events like the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police and to international struggles for human rights are thought provoking.

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4 LITTLE GIRLS

4 LITTLE GIRLS

40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 1997


Spike Lee's powerful and moving documentary, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, explores the events surrounding the September 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The blast, caused by dynamite planted in the church basement, killed young Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley and injured numerous others. No one was charged at the time, but the case was reopened years later and, in 1977, Klan member Robert Chambliss was convicted of the crime. In 2001 Thomas Blanton, Jr. was tried and convicted of the murders, as was Bobby Frank Cherry a year later.

Even as its main focus is on the emotional impact of the girls' deaths on their family, friends, and community, Lee's film educates viewers about the broader context of the Civil Rights Movement. The film emphasizes the role that 16th Street Baptist Church played in Birmingham's movement as a place for activists to meet and gather, often before proceeding to public demonstrations in nearby Kelly Ingram Park where they were met by police, police dogs, and fire hoses.

The church became a target of white supremacist terrorists precisely because its members participated in and supported Civil Rights activism. The film ends by linking the 1963 bombing to the rash of church burnings in the 1990s, emphasizing ongoing threats against black religious institutions in America.

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EVE'S BAYOU

EVE'S BAYOU

Trimark Pictures, 1997


Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, Eve's Bayou explores the unreliability of historical and individual memory in the context of a gothic story of seduction, complex family relations, incest, and African-derived spiritual power. Set in 1960s rural Louisiana, the film is told from the perspective of Eve (Jurnee Smollett) - 10 years old during the film's events, but narrating her family's past from the future - as she struggles to understand the relationship between her father (Samuel L. Jackson), a womanizing doctor, and her mother (Lynn Whitfield).

Trying to save her father from himself, Eve turns to her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), a healer who has the psychic gift of second sight, and then to Elzora (Diahann Carroll), a disheveled voodoo woman who produces spells for money. Viewers learn in the course of the film that Eve too has psychic powers and see her caught between sensing how events might play out and watching the adults around her careen toward the narrative's difficult conclusion. After seeing her attempts to help fail, Eve concludes that, "The truth changes color depending on the light and tomorrow can be clearer than yesterday."

Lemmons presents a range of positions through which her characters seek access to spiritual powers and, for the most part, portrays African spirituality in a nuanced and positive light. The costuming and sets in which we see Elzora conjure up familiar Hollywood stereotypes of African-derived religion, however. Nevertheless, the film's engagement of religious issues is complex. Eve's Bayou scored extremely well at the box office, attracting a broad range of viewers and winning numerous awards.

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WOMAN, THOU ART LOOSED

WOMAN, THOU ART LOOSED

Magnolia Pictures, 2004


Based on the successful novel and stage play by Bishop T.D. Jakes, the film Woman, Thou Art Loosed marks the re-emergence of explicitly religious films of the kind that Spencer Williams and Royal Gospel Productions made in the 1940s. Jakes, who has gained a large following through his television ministry, popular novels and national conferences, moved into film with the goal of expanding his already popular ministry to women. The film explores the impact of childhood sexual abuse through the character of Michelle (Kimberly Elise), who falls into prostitution, drug abuse, and crime as a result of being abused at a young age by her mother's boyfriend. The narrative is presented as a flashback from prison as Michelle struggles to understand the events of her life.

Jakes appears in the film as himself, both in dramatic scenes and in footage that director Michael Schultz incorporated from Jakes' television broadcasts from his church in Dallas, Texas. With high-quality production values and well-known actors, the film delivers its religious message in recognizable Hollywood format.

Critical response to Woman, Thou Art Loosed was mixed, with many critics appreciating Jakes' goals in seeking to address the range of complicated and painful issues the film explores, and finding the approach largely successful. Others found Jake's production to be excessively self-promoting, the script to be heavy handed, and the performances uneven. Nevertheless, audiences responded. Even though the film was shown nationally on a small number of screens, it was among the top ten grossing films its opening weekend.

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>DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN

DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN

Lions Gate Films, 2005


Tyler Perry adapted Diary of a Mad Black Woman from his stage play by the same title and himself appears in film as Madea, a no nonsense grandmother who provides the film's comic thread, as well as in other smaller parts.

Although it is, in large measure a comedy, the film also has a strong dramatic narrative that follows Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise) as she struggles to overcome being cheated on and divorced by her wealthy lawyer husband (Steve Harris). She finds new love with Orlando (Shemar Moore), who shares her Christian values. Ultimately, even the film's most hateful character finds religious redemption, a transformation that Perry sets in the context of a lively and emotional church service.

Despite most critics' negative reviews and their frustrations with the film's mixed genres, audiences responded enthusiastically to Perry's combination of comedy, romance, and evangelical religion. The film opened at number one at the box office during its opening weekend, supported largely by female viewers. Perry continues to write and produce stage shows, and directed and appeared in another theatrically-released film featuring Madea, the 2006 Madea's Family Reunion, which also combined a religious message with comedy and drama.

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THE GOSPEL

THE GOSPEL

Rainforest Films, 2005


Writer and director Rob Hardy uses the parable of The Prodigal Son as a framework for The Gospel to explore a relationship between a father (Clifton Powell), who is a bishop of the church, and his wayward son (Boris Kodjoe), a famous R & B singer who has rejected his father following his mother's death. Added to this familiar story are considerations of politics and power struggles in the church world and the growing lure for both clergy and laity of the corporate model of mega churches over smaller community congregations.

While critics found the story predicable and the acting to add little force to the narrative, critics and audiences alike responded to Hardy's focus on the inspirational power of gospel music. Featuring songs by gospel superstar Kirk Franklin, appearances by Yolanda Adams, Fred Hammond, and Martha Munizzi, and a cast that includes Tamyra Gray, The Gospel presents a powerful portrait of contemporary religious music.

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