Distributed by Grasshopper Films, 12 East 32nd St., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016
Produced by Thom Andersen
Directed by Thom Andersen
DVD, color, 88 min.
Middle School - General Adult
African American, Film, Spencer Williams
Date Entered: 05/16/2017Reviewed by Christopher Lewis, American University Library, American University
Juke is a 30-minute art piece by Thom Andersen comprised of footage from six films by African-American actor/filmmaker Spencer Williams in the 1940s. The film was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), presumably for an exhibit related to early African American cinema.
The film has little dialogue and no cohesive narrative. Instead Andersen’s intention is to emphasize some of the indelible moments found in Williams’s films which, in Anderson’s words, reveal a “documentary record of black life in the 1940s”. With just enough of the plots retained, one is left with a kind of dreamy montage that is hard to appreciate for the duration of the film.
Andersen has a talent for noticing what’s happening at the edges of a movie and his focus on the cultural mores, hairstyles, clothing, decorative touches, and music evoke the vernacular of the period in Texas where Williams’s films were made.
It’s worth noting that Williams was a significant pioneer in the history of cinema; it was unheard of at the time for an African-American to be offered the opportunity to direct films. Today he is mostly forgotten except among an older audience who may remember him playing Andy in the television version of Amos n Andy, so Andersen’s piece is a fitting tribute.
It works as a complement to the MOMA exhibit. However, as a stand-alone work, it’s rather abstract and will likely get very limited use in research or classroom instruction. It falls short of some of the extraordinary work Andersen has done in the past, such as Los Angeles Plays Itself and Red Hollywood.