Dallas filmmaker Spencer Williams was revered as an idol and a groundbreaker by the black community that flocked to his movies, and rightly so. He was among the first independent filmmakers in America, a black man who knew the racist moviemaking system well enough to use it to his own advantage. And his most famous film -- 1941's The Blood of Jesus, in which the Lord and the Devil compete for a woman's soul -- has been placed in the National Film Registry alongside the likes of Citizen Kane and Casablanca.
Despite those achievements, Williams's footnote in film history books is a small one printed in disappearing ink. The man who began his career in the 1920s as a technical assistant and actor, then graduated to writing, directing and producing some of the most influential black films of the 1940s, has been banished to the ghetto reserved for the forgotten pioneers -- where black men such as director Oscar Micheaux and singing cowboy Herb Jeffries will wait forever to receive their due.
But Spencer Williams: Remembrances of an Early Black Film Pioneer -- which will, along with the Williams comedy Beale Street Mama, kick off the Museum of Fine Arts's "Remembering Spencer Williams" series this Friday -- goes at least a little way toward rectifying that oversight. Directed by Dallas documentary-maker Walid Khaldi (who will appear at the MFA screening along with actress July Jones of Mama), Remembrances briefly rescues Williams from obscurity, presenting for the first time a comprehensive view of his films. Narration and substantial film clips provide a glimpse of Williams's genius -- the crack comic timing in black Westerns such as Harlem on the Prairie and The Bronze Buckaroo (made with Herb Jeffries), the religious allegory in The Blood of Jesus and Go Down Death and the craftsmanship of melodramas such as Marching On (about black soldiers serving in World War II).
If the documentary lacks anything, it's context. It mentions racism and segregated theaters such as the Palace and Rex in Dallas, but never reveals much about the black film industry itself -- much of which was run by white men such as Alfred Sack, for whom Williams made most of his films. Also, it never mentions how much Williams spent on his shoestring-budget films, or where the money came from. Nor does Khaldi even hint at the impact Williams's films had on the black community and ensuing generations of black filmmakers. If you judged from Remembrances, you'd think Williams had existed in a vacuum.
Remembrances focuses on Williams's legacy as one of the first, and best, black filmmakers, but as Khaldi only briefly notes, that legacy has been tainted over the years by the presence of another man, a shuffling ne'er-do-well named Andy Brown -- better known as half of Amos 'n' Andy. Williams never lived down the stigma of playing television's Andy, a character so despised by the NAACP and important black newspapers such as The Chicago Defender that in 1953 CBS was forced to cancel the show after a two-year run.
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Williams, however, always took pride in his work on the show. He forced the producers to give Amos and Andy decent homes and fine clothes, affording them respect and dignity. Williams's family even took to calling him "Andy," so proud were they of his accomplishments.
It's unfortunate that Amos 'n' Andy was the last thing Williams did: He died in 1969 in Los Angeles of "heartbreak," says one family member in the film, never able to live up to his potential -- or to live down Andy.
Spencer Williams: Remembrances of an Early Black Film Pioneer plays at 7 p.m. Friday at the Museum of Fine Arts.