Wednesday, January 29, 2003


According to Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies, this was one of the most popular "race" movies of the 30's and 40's, independently produced films made by black filmmakers for black audiences. This one has echoes of earlier and later mainstream Hollywood movies such as THE GREEN PASTURES and CABIN IN THE SKY. Cathryn Caviness plays Martha, a young wife who is baptised at the river one Sunday morning in the presence of the entire church flock except her husband Razz (Spencer Williams, also the writer and director) who is off hunting, or, more precisely, poaching hogs that belong to someone else. He's not portrayed as wicked so much as misguided. As Martha rests up from her baptism, Razz's rifle accidently goes off, shooting her in the side, with the bullet going clean through her and hitting a portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall. (This seemed like a physical impossibility given the angles involved, but I guess the Lord works in mysterious ways.) The flock arrives to sing and pray at her bedside, seemingly to no avail; her soul-self is taken by an angel on a journey through a wicked city on the way to a crossroads where she will have to take one of two paths: "To Hell" or "To Zion." She is tested in the city and nearly fails, but is redeemed at the crossroads where the road sign turns into a life-size crucifix from which Jesus's blood drips on her face and saves her. She wakes up in bed, a little like Dorothy back from Oz, surrounded by the flock and her loving and contrite husband.

It's a very low budget film, although its starkly minimal sets and costumes actually give it an almost surreal (and occasionally quite creepy) atmosphere. I doubt the creepiness was intended, especially in the strange scenes of Martha just after her baptism--I would think joy would be the order of the day, but she seems drained of all energy like a sleepwalker. A rather non-threatening trick-or-treat style devil shows up in the big city to tempt her into mildly sinful behavior. There is lots of music throughout, mostly hymns including "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and an especially dirge-like rendition of "Amazing Grace," but also some lowdown Robert Johnson-like blues in the wicked city. The movie is certainly not everyone's cup of tea, but I found it watchable due to the short one-hour running time and the strange atmosphere. There's hardly a moment in the film that feels real, but that's almost a plus. TCM runs this sometimes in February for Black History Month, and it's worth catching.

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