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Juke Joint, a 1947 combination of musical numbers and low comedy, was one of the last films produced specifically for African-American audiences during the race film movement that had started in response to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915). It marked the final directing credit for the pioneering Spencer Williams, combining the elements that had made his pictures distinct contributions to the development of black cinema with the problems that would eventually lead to the end of the race film.
On the plus side, the film captured the spirit of African-American ethnic drama at the time, using a loosely constructed plot as an excuse for comic scenes and musical numbers. Williams and July Jones (Texas dancer Robert Orr) co-star as a pair of con artists who get the civic leaders in a small African-American town to bankroll a nightclub for them. Their shady dealings are complicated by their involvement with the Holliday family, complete with fiery matriarch and temptingly beautiful daughters. Like such Williams classics as Blood of Jesus (1941) and Go Down, Death (1944), it provided a look at African-American life outside the big cities. Like many filmmakers in the race film movement, Williams worked outside of the Hollywood and New York entertainment centers, filming Juke Joint in Dallas and San Antonio, Texas. Unlike those earlier films, however, the picture deals very little with the importance of religion in African-American life. At only one point, when the Holliday family sits down to say grace before dinner, does it give a sense of how Christianity helped sustain black Americans through decades of oppression.
On the negative side, the film's low budget and largely untrained cast were typical of the later race films, which had begun to wear out their welcome with critics in the African-American newspapers. Even the most generous reviewers found the picture's flat acting and flubbed lines (the budget was too low for re-takes) hard to ignore. Far from an alternative to Hollywood's stereotyped depiction of black Americans, the film simply perpetuated the images already rife in the white media. Moreover, the practice in many race films of casting light-skinned blacks in the leading roles and dark-skinned blacks as villains and buffoons was beginning to draw fire in the ethnic press.
Of course, like most race films, Juke Joint wasn't entirely an African-American production. Although the race film movement had started with black businessmen financing their own films to counter the offensive racial images in mainstream films, by the '30s and '40s, the circuit was largely run by white producers like Bert Goldberg. To his credit, Goldberg had bankrolled Williams' more pioneering productions. Nonetheless, the movement had lost its social impetus and simply become a way of providing cheap product to audiences who otherwise would have few chances to see African-American performers on screen. When Hollywood began producing films about racial issues in the years following World War II, African-American audiences deserted race films.Juke Joint would mark the end of the road for Williams, who would resurface on television as Andy in the TV version of the popular radio series Amos 'n' Andy. His films would be largely forgotten until the '70s, when critics and film archivists re-discovered his and other filmmakers' unique visions of African-American life.
Producer: Bert Goldberg, Alfred N. Sack
Director: Spencer Williams
Screenplay: True T. Thompson
Cinematography: George Sanderson
Music: Red Calhoun
Principal Cast: Spencer Williams (Bad News Johnson/Vanderbilt Whitney), July Jones ("Cornbread" Green), Inez Newell (Louella "Mama Lou" Holliday), Leonard Duncan (Samuel "Papa Sam" Holliday), Dauphine Moore (Barbara "Honey Dew" Holliday), Melody Duncan (Melody Holliday), Red Calhoun (Bandleader), Duncan's Beauty Show Girls, Kit and Kat, Mac and Ace, The Jitterbug Johnnies.
by Frank Miller