Reference Entry

Williams, Spencer, Jr.

Malcolm Womack

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Williams, Spencer, Jr.

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film writer, director, and actor, was born in Vidalia, Louisiana, to Spencer Williams Sr. and Pauline Williams Tatum, the president of the local Woman's Relief Corps. At the age of seventeen, he moved to New York City and found work backstage in the theater for the producer Oscar Hammerstein. As a “call boy,” the stagehand who is responsible for giving the performers a five-minute warning before their entrances, Williams met several celebrities, including Bert Williams, the African American star of the Ziegfeld Follies, who served as something of a mentor to the young man.After serving in the army during World War I and attaining the rank of sergeant, Williams returned to find employment in the newly burgeoning film industry, both as a performer (notably in Buster Keaton's silent classic Steamboat Bill, Jr.) and behind the camera. He was hired by Paramount's Christie Comedies production company as a writer, adapting comic short stories about African American life for film. Although this material relied heavily on the caricatures and comic tropes of the minstrel show, Williams is credited with trying to “squeeze honest black roles into the crevices of white movies” (Cripps, p. 222) and was the screenwriter of the first all-black “talkie,” 1928's Melancholy Dame. In the same year he directed his first movie, the all-black silent western Tenderfeet, and he continued working as a performer, technician, and writer of “race pictures” (films with black casts designed for African American movie houses).Impressed by his work, in 1940 the producer Alfred Sack offered Williams the opportunity to create his own films, and Williams moved to Texas to make race pictures for Sack Amusement Enterprises. The first film he created for Sack was 1941's The Blood of Jesus, the story of a woman who is accidentally shot by her husband and, finding her spirit at the crossroads between Heaven and Hell, must resist the temptations of drinking and dancing in order to find redemption. Shot around Dallas for a budget of $5,000 (miniscule even by 1940 standards), this Baptist allegory was commercially successful and is generally considered to be Williams's best work, praised in recent years as “magnificent” by the New York Times and appearing on Time magazine's list of “The 25 Most Important Films on Race.” His ability to make a commercially successful film on a shoestring budget made Williams popular with both his crew, who praised his speed and professionalism, and with Alfred Sack, who gave Williams free reign to continue making movies both religious (such as Brother Martin: Servant of Jesus) and secular (Dirty Gertie from Harlem, U.S.A.; Juke Joint) for the rest of the 1940s.In 1950, Williams seized on an opportunity that was both entrepreneurial and a way to help his fellow veterans, and he moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to cofound the American Business and Industrial College, a technical school for returning African American servicemen going to college on the G.I. Bill. He was in Tulsa for only a year when he accepted the role of Andy in the new television version of the popular, problematic Amos & Andy radio show. Created by Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two white minstrel show performers who voiced their characters in an exaggerated black dialect, Amos & Andy was a comedy about two ignorant friends—Amos, the childlike innocent and Andy, the blustering dimwit—who were constantly thwarted in their attempts to get rich quick. Gosden and Correll had originally planned to play the parts on the television show themselves, wearing blackface, but they eventually hired an all-black cast who brought their talents and experience to these decades-old stereotypes. Although the show was successful with viewers and sponsors, in the face of sustained condemnation from the NAACP over what the president Walter White saw as the program's offensive caricatures of African Americans, CBS cancelled the series in 1954 after seventy-nine episodes.Williams worked very little after the cancellation of Amos & Andy, living off his pension and veteran's benefits, and he passed away from kidney failure at the Sawtelle Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles at the age of seventy-nine. He was survived by his widow, Eula, and his films were largely forgotten until the discovery of several canisters of his movies in a warehouse in Tyler, Texas, in 1983. The consequent reevaluation of his work has rightfully placed Spencer Williams beside Oscar Micheaux as the only African American auteurs in midcentury American film.

Reference Entry.  785 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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