Thursday, February 18, 2021
Race Films Double Feature
Go Down Death! (1944) & Sunday Sinners (1940)
The confrontation in today's today's two films is classic: congregation vs. juke joint, church vs. jazz club. It does make sense. These two institutions are central in African American culture of the middle part of the twentieth century, and at times they would certainly be at odds. The central conflict in both films is between a club that's breaking the Sabbath and a Reverend who condemns the practice -- probably not an uncommon conflict when these films were made. Since the Civil War and Reconstruction, churches had played a central role in African American life, not only in the area of faith but also of community and social life. But as ragtime, blues, and jazz grew as musical forms, clubs to celebrate those forms grew as well and began to compete with the church for a role in the hearts and minds of many.
Go Down Death! opens with a rather solemn title card: “Alfred N. Sack Reverently Presents Go Down Death! A Harlemwood Studios Production - This Story of Love and Simple Faith and the Triumph of Good over Evil was inspired by the Poem “Go Down, Death!” from the Pen of Celebrated Negro Author James Weldon Johnson, Now of Sainted Memory” with the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” playing as the soundtrack.
We then see a club with drinking and dancing and women wearing slacks (it stops short of dogs and cats living together). The owner of the club, Big Jim Bottoms, is outraged by the new preacher in town who has condemned his club for being open on Sundays. Big Jim is played by Spencer Williams, who is also the film’s director. Williams directed a number of films, some with religious themes such as The Blood of Jesus and entertainments like Juke Joint. But he is most famous for Andy in the controversial television program, Amos & Andy. (The show was controversial for propagating black stereotypes, but the radio version may have been worse with Caucasians playing the African American roles.) In Go Down Death!, the club scenes feature some quite good singing and dancing (one woman seems to perform a moonwalk decades before Michael Jackson).
Then we see the Reverend Jasper (Samuel H. James) as he preaches before his congregation. He reads Psalm 1 and then briefly exposits on the text, “To be godly, one must be God-like, pure in heart, the very essence of Christ’s message.” (He does what many of my seminary profs urged, find a way to preach Jesus, even in Old Testament texts.) Little did the Reverend know that three women in the congregation were sent by Big Jim to catch the pastor in a compromising situation. The attractive young women go to the Pastor’s private study after the service.
Minnie, Mable, and Lady ask the pastor, “How might we go about being converted?” The pastor quotes passages from the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 6, urging the women to trust in Jesus. The women claim they want to hear more and ask the pastor to come with them to their apartment. Unwisely, the pastor follows them. He gives them each a New Testament and says, “If you read and ingest this much of the wholly Scriptures it will do you good.” Then the women break out alcohol, one of the women kisses the pastor on his lips, just as photographers come out from behind the curtains and take incriminating pictures.
The pastor considers resigning because of the pictures. He doesn’t trust his congregation to take his word that he is innocent. Sadly, in the news recently we have been reading about pastors who committed sexual sin but were believed when they denied the charges, so it is difficult to know what the right call for the pastor would be.
But Aunt Caroline, Big Jim’s adoptive mother, attends Pastor Jasper’s church. Her dead husband appears to her and shows her where to find the phony blackmail photos. The ghost of her husband opens Big Jim’s safe and Caroline takes the pictures. (I will not even attempt to deal with the theological implications of this spectral aid.) When Big Jim finds Caroline with pictures, he takes the pictures back, killing her in the process.
The Reverend Jasper performs Caroline’s service saying, “Weep not, she is not dead, she is resting in the arms of Jesus. Heartbroken son, weep no more. Grief-stricken niece, weep no more… She has gone to heaven. God looked at Sister Caroline tossed with pain, and God commanded that tall white angel called Death to reach down to her.” (I have a problem with pastors discouraging people from expressing their very real grief.)
The pastor went on to give a title drop, “Go down, Death! Death came on his white horse while we were watching round her bed. She saw old death coming like a falling star, but death didn’t fight Sister Caroline, he looked to her like an old friend.” This wasn't the approach taken by Jesus when He wept for his friend, Lazarus, or Paul who referred in Death in I Cor. 15:26 as “the last enemy”.
After this sermon, Big Jim is racked with guilt, hearing voices that accuse him of his crimes. He has visions of hell and runs. When he is found dead in a box canyon, Rev. Jasper says, "May God have mercy on his soul."
Sunday Sinners has much in common with Go Down Death, including some very good small-scale musical numbers. Even the church choir in the film is very talented. It also shares the same basic conflict of a pastor opposing the depravity of club life.
As the film begins, the pastor, the Rev. Jesse Hampton (Earl Sydnor), is trying to build his attendance, “We can’t run a church without a congregation.” So he comes up with a strategy, “I’m going to direct my next sermon toward those cafe people. It might do some good.” The pastor also tries to encourage young people to come, opening a fitness center. “That’s our youngsters. The future of our church, our race! It is our duty to cry out against the evils of the city. The Cafe People are leading our youth astray.”
The pastor is particularly upset that the local cafe has scheduled the “Monster Dance Contest” on a Sunday, so he visits the cafe to see what’s going on. When his church board learns that he was at the cafe, and witnessed women dancing in skimpy clothing, they are not pleased.
Even worse for the pastor, his son, Ray (Ernie Ransom), gets a job at the cafe. He becomes involved with some nefarious characters and is accused of murder. The church threatens to fire the pastor.
The pastor decides to take the offensive. He leads his congregation from the church to the cafe. He ends up starting a fistfight between his congregation and the staff of the cafe (the pastor is very much involved in the fight). The cafe owner's wife shoots into the crowd, injuring a woman (not seriously). The police come, and for some reason are harsher with cafe staff than the church folks that came and started the fight.
And yet, somehow, this all resolves for the best. The pastor assures the cafe owner, “Our church isn’t against dancing, we just don’t want dances on Sunday nights.” So the owner agrees to close on Sundays. And all is swell.
Still, I just can’t support the Rev. Hampton’s policy of violence for community action. I am much more supportive of Rev. Jasper’s humble spirit. But jointly, the pastors and their churches achieve a meager Two Steeple average in our Movie Churches ratings.