Black Churches and Blue-Eyed Jesuses
The first few minutes of the revival movement film Elmer Gantry (1960) are a paean to the spit and gleam of Burt Lancaster’s Klieg-light teeth. Dancing shamelessly like a character unto themselves, they tell you everything you need to know about twentieth-century divinity and the meteoric rise of the evangelical shaman as an American idol. Based on Sinclair Lewis’ satirical 1927 novel of the same name, the film chronicles a midwestern rogue’s pursuit of Jesus, Inc., represented by a beatific revivalist preacher by the name of Sister Sharon Falconer (played by Jean Simmons).
Lancaster tears into the title role with lupine brio. Barely ten minutes into the film, a dirty and disreputable Gantry, freshly sprung from a hobo brawl on a musty boxcar, lands at a Negro church. Gantry’s own brand of religion marches lockstep with sex, lies, moonshine, and doe-eyed indolence. Before his date with destiny he staggers around, selling cheap vacuum cleaners, toasters, and any other sundry fare he can get his hands on. He’s desperate for a quick fix, a ticket out of obscurity. Is there no better place for a miscreant white man to jam his foot in the door of redemption than a Negro church?
If Hollywood cinema is America’s shepherd, there isn’t. In the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, ex-cons Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, respectively) embark on their back-flipping “mission from God” with a send-off from preacher James Brown and choir member Chaka Khan. Robert Duvall’s turn as a charismatic preacher in the 1997 film, The Apostle, begins and ends in steamy clapboard black churches. In Jim Crow America, white people enter black sacred spaces strategically yet innocently, and their presence is seemingly unquestioned. They enter and are indelibly transformed, their souls becalmed—the lynch rope that would surely greet a black interloper in a World War I-era white church unthinkable.
In Elmer Gantry, Lancaster hears the peals of “On My Way to Canaan’s Land” as he walks along the train tracks. He follows the sound and enters the church with the service going full bore. The singing stops as he enters. Gradually, as he lends his powerful tenor to the song, the all-black congregation’s initial wariness gives way to some kind of acceptance. Of course, images of black folk rapturously belting out gospel songs are standard fare in American nostalgia. But the Gantry scene intrigues because of the striking figure of a little girl standing next to him in the congregation. She gives him the once over, her disrupted body language conveying caution and bewilderment with the inimitable honesty of a child. This quizzical little girl is the visual anchor of the scene, the adults swept up in euphoria—grinning, clapping, and singing with soulful abandon. Again, the Negro church is a crucial point of spiritual entry for the dissolute white man. The embodiment of natural, primitive spirituality and devoutness, its congregants are an important space of projection for Gantry’s personal journey from ignominy to (partial) redemption. Gantry later becomes Sister Sharon’s spiritual lieutenant and lover and a quasi-folk hero in the lily white, corn-fed world of Pentecostal tent revivals. Tellingly, there are virtually no other people of color featured in the entire movie after the Negro church scene.
Thus, the little girl serves as a silent commentator on the reality of black subjectivity in the midst of racial apartheid. Yet she is also a symbol of the complex faith rituals in black communities. These rituals are a tacit part of the traditional African-American upbringing. The camera frames her shock at the white interloper’s presence but it also suggests her potential defiance. Even in the sanctuary of the church, black children were taught that whiteness signified power; that white space carried a special authority and terror, and that Jesus looked not unlike Elmer Gantry.