When Black film pioneers are discussed, invariably Oscar Micheaux is mentioned. I’ve featured Micheaux in this column in the past, but one early actor and director who is rarely discussed is Spencer Williams Jr.
He should not be confused with his namesake and the great composer, who was a contemporary and also from Louisiana. Perhaps we can profile him and his contributions in the future. Meanwhile, there is the Williams of the moment, who many may recall for his portrayal of Andy Brown on the highly controversial sitcom of the 1950s, “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” Picture him—the rotund, easygoing, derby-wearing dupe with a cigar in his mouth.
The show, after withering attacks from the NAACP and others for its demeaning depiction of African-American culture, particularly its parade of stereotypes, was discontinued. It had begun on the radio, with the white writers Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden in the lead roles.
On television, Williams was the foil to Tim Moore’s character, George “Kingfish” Stevens, and their exchanges were deemed the heart and soul of the often ridiculous plots and scenarios. Williams’ career was unknown to millions of viewers; they had no idea how significant he was in the early years of movies in America.
Born July 14, 1893, in Vidalia, La., Williams moved to New York City during his teen years, where he studied comedy under the eminent vaudevillian Bert Williams (no relation). He was a student at the University of Minnesota when World War I broke out, and he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for several years.
By 1923, he was back in New York City, resuming his career in show business, which was jump-started when he landed a position with Christie Studios in Hollywood. As a performer and writer, Williams co-wrote and appeared in Paramount Pictures’ first all-Black talking film, “Melancholy Dame,” in 1928. This endeavor provided the impetus for him to embark on his own production, and later that year he directed his first film, “Tenderfeet.”
According to film authority Donald Bogle, Williams was “shrewd, industrious and tough-minded,” and “through sheer tenacity and his own dedication to filmmaking, held on in the movie business for the next two decades.” He wrote and was featured in a number of westerns starring Herb Jeffries, including “Bronze Buckaroo” and “Harlem on the Prairie.” Oddly, in “Bronze Buckaroo” Williams plays a villain and is not listed in the credits as one of the writers.
Throughout the 1930s, Williams was prolific, including his work with Christie’s as a consultant, continuity writer and performer in the company’s series of comedies that focused on Black life in urban Alabama.
In 1940, Williams wrote and portrayed a detective in the film, “Song of Ingagi,” a version of the previous film “Ingagi,” a kind of King Kong horror film. The following year, Williams launched his own company, Amnegro Films—and the name was clearly a deliberate play on words. “The Blood of Jesus” was the first of several films under Williams’ direction with moral and religious themes, and it centers around Marsha, whose ne’er-do-well but well-meaning husband Ras (played by Williams), is off hunting rather than going to church. Ras accidentally shoots his wife, and while she is left clinging to life, Ras prays for her recovery. The film then resorts to an angel and the devil struggling for Marsha’s soul.
All ends well in this low-budget ($5,000) production in which Williams borrowed liberally from several Italian films. For many years the film was lost, but when it was found in a university’s storage warehouse in Tyler, Texas, in the 1980s, it was selected for insertion in the Library of Congress’s National Registry of Films.
Dave Kehr, a film historian, called the film a “masterpiece” and J. Hoberman, another film critic, agreed and added that the cinematic value of the film “has scarcely lost its power to astonish.” Filmmaker Julie Dash, of “Daughters of the Dust” fame, said the film’s baptismal scene was the inspiration for her own depiction.
In 1947, Williams directed and starred in “Juke Joint,” which was nothing more than vaudeville moved to the screen. Bogle reminds us of one hilarious scene in which Willliams, annoyed by his sidekick July Jones, warns Jones that “I get to thinking real hard, I get sort of ugly in the face.” Jones replies, “Well, anybody can see you’re a hard thinker.” That is the kind of buffoonery and abuse Williams endured as Andy Brown.
When Williams moved to Tulsa, Okla., in the late 1940s, he devoted himself to teaching photography and radio to military veterans. To some degree, this retreat may have been the result of the poor distribution and financial woes Black filmmakers faced then and continue to face. But apparently his work in films, especially as an expert of African-American dialect, was not forgotten, and he secured the role of Andy in the television series that ran for two years before it was canceled.
After the show’s cancellation, Williams began a crusade for a more serious depiction of Blacks in films and was often called upon to voice his support for the cause. There were also many speaking engagements for his expertise on early Black films, and few could speak with such intimacy and authority. Comedy and religion may have been his forte, but he was also quite adept at serious topics, none more rewarding than his 1940 documentary “Marching On,” a tribute to African-Americans in the military.
Williams died of kidney failure in his Los Angeles home Dec. 13, 1969.