Micheaux and Williams: Titans of ‘Race’ Cinema


Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951) and Spencer Williams (1893–1969) are the two titans of America’s “race” cinema. Micheaux—the “Black Griffith” in the sense that surrealist André Breton was the “Black Pope”—was a filmmaker of fantastic tenacity. He began making movies in 1919 and, against all odds, continued for three decades, more or less reinventing the medium to suit himself and his budgets. Williams—an actor who wound up with a regular role on TV’s Amos ‘n’ Andy—directed a handful of low-budget crowd-pleasers in the ’40s, including one of the most successful independent productions ever: The Blood of Jesus (1941).

Anthology’s three-day celebration (notably scheduled a month outside the traditional ghetto of Black History Month) includes two Micheaux silent films and a quartet of Williams talkies, all archival prints. Within Our Gates (1920) is generally understood as Micheaux’s riposte to The Birth of a Nation; this attack on the KKK and account of a lynching directly addresses Griffith’s slander of mulattos while inverting the master’s rape scene. Body and Soul (1925) details the rise and fall of a jackleg preacher. Fresh from a pair of onstage Eugene O’Neill roles, Paul Robeson makes his screen debut in a deliriously confusing double role as both the bogus reverend and his timid adversary.

Williams is represented by a pair of secular genre flicks—Dirty Gertie From Harlem (1946) and Juke Joint (1947), showbiz stories both—as well as his two visionary morality plays, Go Down Death! (1944) and The Blood of Jesus. The last, shot in rural Texas with a largely amateur cast and the Reverend R.L. Robinson’s Heavenly Choir, played for years in church basements across the South. A ferociously visceral dramatized sermon in which the Devil drives a flatbed truck and sinners grind to bottleneck blues, it’s a masterpiece of folk cinema that has scarcely lost its power to astonish.