On Jan. 29, Princeton University Professor of Religion Judith Weisenfeld visited UR and gave a presentation entitled “A Mighty Epic of Modern Morals: Religious Race Movies of the 1940s.”

As promised by her introduction, it only took a few minutes for listeners to gain an appetite for film. Addressing her audience, Weisenfeld revealed an age of cinema that has been all but lost to history.

The time she was referring to was the 1940s, when a popular new form of entertainment emerged that specifically catered to African-American Christians – films with sermonic themes and spiritual music done by gospel choirs.

Weisenfeld spoke of the first movies with all-black casts and played scenes from movies that had been released over half a century ago.

As the lights dimmed in the Hawkins-Carlson room of Rush Rhees Library, the audience was treated to a clip from “The Blood of Jesus,” a film in which a black woman has a near-death experience and is repeatedly tempted by the devil. While the audience at Weisenfeld’s presentation may have chuckled quietly at the archaic quality of the scenes, the message portrayed and the appeal that such a film would have been enjoyed in the ’40s was unmistakable.

Afterwards, Weisenfeld brought attention to the subtle filmmaking techniques that reinforced the films’ religious ideals, speaking of the somewhat controversial decision to use special effects to show divine moments in the scene.

She continued on to describe the complex relationship between African-American Christians and films, elaborating how directors of that time, such as Spencer Williams, tried to shape black church cultures and religious thought.

“Spencer Williams took off with vigor at the idea of using film to stimulate viewers imagination and spread his viewpoints,” Weisenfeld said, pausing to display posters from Williams’s films. “In Spencer’s career as a producer, he created such works as ‘Go Down Death’ and ‘Going to Glory.'”

Due to the small amount of attention that these films have received over the years, little of their legacy can be seen in theaters today.

“I wouldn’t say that they’ve had no impact on today’s producers, but it’s incredibly rare for people today to know of these films and have watched them,” Weisenfeld said.

Following the presentation, Weisenfeld answered questions such topics as what the films tell us about African-American culture from that era.

“These religious films are great records of dances from that era, because even though they decried going to nightclubs, such scenes were still shown,” she said.

Weisenfeld also talked about recurring devices in the movies, such as the differences in clothing between morally righteous women and sinful women and the need for a sinful male character.

Her speech was well received, with reactions ranging from deep approval to outright surprise.

“I had no idea that these types of films even existed in the 1940s – it’s amazing,” sophomore Aaron Cooper said. “I was pretty impressed.”

The lecture was attended by faculty and students alike, including a large portion of Assistant Professor of Religion and Classics Anthea Butler’s class on 20th-century black religion and popular culture.

Weisenfeld’s lecture was based on her new release, “Hollywood Be Thy Name,” the first book to examine how movies constructed images of African-American religion. She currently teaches a course called “African-American Women and Religion.” She received her Ph. D. from Princeton University in 1992.

Kozak is a member of the class of 2010.



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