by Phil Hall

February 16, 2009

BOOTLEG FILES 270 “Go Down Death” (1944 all-black film starring and directed by Spencer Williams).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in public domain dupes.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It never had a copyright.


It is often difficult to write about the so-called “race films” that were made in the U.S. between the early 1920s and late 1940s because of the painful sociological surrounding their existence. These films were independently produced endeavors featuring all-black casts, and they were distributed exclusively to racially segregated venues in the Jim Crow era.

There is also a sense of artistic difficulty surrounding the subject – the vast majority of these films were not good. In fact, many of them were fairly awful. In fairness, many of these films were made under extremely difficult financial circumstances, and one could imagine the quality control of this genre would have been substantially stronger had there been more money and time devoted to their creation. But outside of some barbed essays by Richard Corliss and J. Hoberman, few major film scholars would dare criticize the genre as lacking artistic value – even though most of these film are just plain awful.

Another difficulty arises in knowing many of these films were made by white filmmakers who denied African Americans the opportunity to work behind the camera. Some black filmmakers were able to direct and produce films during the silent movie era, but there were very few opportunities for black filmmakers in race films after sound to motion pictures. The legendary Oscar Micheaux, who self-produced his films, was the major except – but by 1940, he was virtually inactive.

During the 1940s, the African American actor-writer Spencer Williams had the rare opportunity to direct a series of race films for Sack Amusement Enterprises, a company based in Dallas. Williams’ first directing effort, the 1941 religious allegory “The Blood of Jesus,” was a surprise hit in the race film genre. With its startling imagery and unapologetic embrace of a Christian storyline, “The Blood of Jesus” is a jolting and daring endeavor that rises about its primitive production values (a $5,000 budget and non-professional cast). Willams followed that triumph with another religious film, “Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus” in 1942. Unfortunately, no print of that film is known to survive and we know very little about the production (one can assume it was much less successful in content and commercial value than Williams’ first film).

Williams returned to a religious theme with the 1944 feature “Go Down Death.” Regarding this film, one can say – without any degree of exaggeration – this is just a terrible movie. Indeed, “Go Down Death” is everything “The Blood of Jesus” is not: clumsy, clueless, vulgar and monotonous.

“Go Down Death,” as with all race films, takes place in an exclusively African American community. The neighborhood appears to be under the control of Big Jim Bottoms (played by Spencer Williams), who runs the local juke joint. Unfortunately for Big Jim, he has competition for the hearts, minds and dollars of the community: a handsome young preacher (Samuel H. James) has arrived. Remarkably, the preacher attracts the juke joint clients away from their boozing and partying. Come Sundays, Big Jim pretty much has the juke joint to himself because everyone is in church.

Needless to say, Big Jim is unhappy and he decides to dispatch the competition. To achieve this, he decides to have the preacher photographed in compromising situations with a trio of highly attractive but deeply dubious women. The scheme works well, but Big Jim gets caught by Aunt Caroline, his adopted mother (Big Jim’s parents were killed in a tornado when he was still Little Jim). She pleads with Big Jim to abandon the frame-up, but he refuses to listen. Aunt Caroline then has a conversation with her late husband, and his ghost shows up to point out where Big Jim has hidden the frame-up photographs. (Yeah, I know – and the ghost has to be seen to be believed!)

Big Jim finds out what Aunt Caroline and his ghostly uncle were up to, and a fight ensues. Aunt Caroline is struck by Jim and she collapses, dying short after. The dishy preacher gets to perform the eulogy and he decides to read aloud from the celebrated James Weldon Johnson poem “Go Down Death.” Big Jim, however, finds himself haunted by visions of a ghastly afterlife in Hell. He runs off, tortured by his guilty conscience, and his body is later discovered in a deserted canyon. As for the photos of the preacher and the hussies – well, they just seem to vanish!

There is really no nice way around it, so let’s attack the problem head on: “Go Down Death” is a stupid movie. It is basically a good-versus-evil tale spelled out in the most painfully simple manner imaginable. Williams presents cardboard characters whose actions are so broad that even the dullest Sunday School student would be bored by the lack of dimension in the story telling. Even the hoochie mamas who try to tempt the preacher are painfully enervated in their flirting – and the preacher is so cold to their come on that the seduction plays like a necrophilia happening.

But “Go Down Death” really falls off the tracks when the time comes for Big Jim to be haunted by the visions of hell. Lacking a budget to create his own unique vision of a grotesque afterlife, Williams was forced to borrow (without any on-screen credit) a variety of clips from numerous silent movies. Thus, we see spirits going to Heaven courtesy of the 1911 Italian production “L’Inferno” and poor souls being tortured in Hell via a hodgepodge of George Melies fantasy flicks. Of course, the idea of eternity populated by a bunch of frenetic white folks jumping around in devil costumes at an exaggerated running speed makes a mockery of the notion of Big Jim being tortured by his conscience. And Williams, despite his best efforts to look terrified (popped eyes and frantically waving arms), only adds to the confusion with his hamming.

“Go Down Death” ran into some censorship problem when attempts were made to release it in theaters. State censorship boards in Ohio and Maryland requested (and received) cuts in the Hell footage and in the scene with the loose women trying to seduce the preacher (it appears a bit too much leg got on film). The Ohio censors went further by asking that one of the Melies shots – a man being chewed in the mouth of a giant devil – be removed.

“Go Down Death” had a checkered distribution – although it was made in 1944, it didn’t reach many cities until 1948. By that time, Sack Amusement Enterprises was out of business and Williams retired from show business – but he did return in 1951 to star as Andrew H. Brown in the controversial TV version of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

No copyright was ever filed on “Go Down Death” and it has always been a public domain title. The original materials for the film have been lost for years and all that remains are cruddy dupes. As an orphan film, it is unlikely any commercial label would want to digitally restore it. And as a lousy movie, who would want to spend their money making it look good?

If you are curious about Spencer Williams’ filmmaking, seek out “The Blood of Jesus.” As for “Go Down Death”...just let it go down.

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