Part of an ongoing effort to watch a set of films from non-White, non-U.S., non-male, and/or non-straight filmmakers and depart a little from the Western canon. The intro and full list can be found here.
“Every race man and woman should cast aside their skepticism regarding the Negro’s ability as a motion picture star.” ~ Oscar Micheaux
From the beginning of his filmmaking career, Oscar Micheaux’s earnestness, and his view that art could uplift and inspire the downtrodden, was on full display. In 1920’s Within Our Gates, his narratively clever semi-response to The Birth of a Nation, this took the form of passionate calls for educating the Black community and pushing for self-determination. Body and Soul, based on his own novel, is never so high-minded, opting instead for lurid melodrama. What Body and Soul does do, however, is mark the screen debut of Paul Robeson – and if Micheaux’s ambition was to demonstrate the potential star power of Black actors in cinema, then mission wildly accomplished.
Robeson is a towering figure in 20th century history, but in 1925 he was largely unknown outside of the New York stage scene. Three years later, this would change drastically: Robeson’s appearance in Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat immediately transformed him into one of the central Black performers known throughout the country, and the most beloved (for a time).
But in 1925, he was 27 years old, a Columbia-educated lawyer pursuing acting, and appearing in one of Micheaux’s “race movies,” financed, as always, outside of the Hollywood system and filmed on a miniscule budget. Body and Soul is compromised in many ways – since it was hacked away at by the New York censors, we have only a truncated version handed down from history, with Micheaux’s original vision completely lost – but Robeson is a magnetic presence in every scene.
He plays dual roles: an odious phony pastor calling himself Rt. Rev. Isaiah T. Jenkins and also kindly Sylvester, Jenkins estranged twin brother. (Richard Corliss noted: “A good twin and a bad twin? ‘Body and Soul’’ is a silent film after all, and the movie employs the melodramatic formulas of the period.”)
“The Reverend” is an inveterate drunk, swindler, and con-man who has nevertheless secured the adoration of his flock in small-town Georgia. He’s the kind of guy who demands free booze from the local drinking establishment and then follows up by extorting the proprietor for a donation to the Church, casually threatening to expose the illicit operation if he doesn’t comply. Like Old Ned, the pastor in Within Our Gates, he’s a hypocrite through and through; unlike Ned, he is totally untroubled by his hypocrisy. To the contrary — he seems to take great pleasure in hamming it up on the pulpit, while robbing the community blind.
A stranger comes to town who knows who Jenkins really is, and wants in on the action. A parallel plotline follows young Isabelle, her beau Sylvester, and Isabelle’s mother Martha Jane, who has been working hard to save money for the eventual marriage. However, they have different ideas of who will be in that wedding. Mom looks down on broke Sylvester and dismisses him as an option: a startling exchange, and one of the few overtly didactic touches on Micheaux’s part, occurs when Martha Jane says, “What’s that nigguh got to marry you on?” and Isabelle replies, “Don’t say that ma, it’s vulgar.” It goes without saying that the man Martha Jane has in mind is none other than his twin brother, the godly Reverend Jenkins.
There’s a sense that Micheaux is hinting at a generational gap in terms of aspirations, and definitely in terms of their relationships to the Church. To a person, the older people in town revere the Reverend because that’s what one does – it’s even in his title. For Isabelle, that’s not an option, and not just because she loves Sylvester.
Martha Jane cheerfully arranges for the Reverend and Isabelle to be alone together, ostensibly to talk about saving her soul, and takes her leave. She’s no sooner out the door than he physically assaults Isabelle, twisting her arm behind her back violently. The scene ends without further explanation, and, in a bold narrative move, it’s not until the end that we find out the context.
Still, left to our own imaginations (or especially so), it’s unsettling to read Jenkins’ reply when Martha Jane asks if she’s returned too early in the next scene: “It was a great struggle, Sister Martha, but the Lord’s Will be done.”
Isabelle flees town while her mom is at the store, hopping a train to Atlanta. Back at home, Martha Jane discovers all her savings are missing, and a note from Isabelle claiming to have taken them.
Months later, we’re treated to some lovely rooftop views of the big city, which seem to stand in contrast with the dirt roads and ramshackle structures back home. However, amid all this majesty, we eventually find Isabelle destitute and starving, walking hesitantly and slightly hunched like Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms.
Martha Jane tracks her down in Atlanta, and Isabelle’s last act is tell her the true story that led to this tragic end. A flashback reveals that the Reverend, in addition to all his other reprehensible qualities, is a rapist as well. (This scene, while unpleasant, is one of Micheaux’s more visually experimental moments in the film — the shot focuses only on a man’s shows entering a half-lit room, and then exiting. In a film that seems largely uninterested in expressionistic touches, this stands out.) We circle back around via yet another flashback and learn what became of the money – surprise, it’s who you think it is. But that was never in doubt – Micheaux’s interest seems to be in the telling more than the story.
The film ends with a concession forced by the censors that’s totally at odds with the film. It deploys one of the great clichés we return to again and again, and it’s either laughable or regrettable (or both). I won’t spoil it but you can probably guess. One lesson is that censors usually don’t help a film stick the landing.
In any case, as in Within Our Gates, Micheaux favors flashbacks and circular structures, holding off on the reveal and then presenting it as a memory or a story being told. It’s an effective narrative technique that also serves an ideological purpose: it shows that these characters have a kind of interiority, that they remember, and relay. Unlike the Black caricatures of The Birth of a Nation or minstrel shows, and in even in this fairly broad melodrama, they are more than surface-level representations.
Robeson is incredible in his scenery-chewing villainous role, and charming as Sylvester (although he doesn’t get much to do, at least in the version that exists). He went on to star in many other films but seems invariably unhappy with the end products, which he felt were still caricatures and didn’t suit his increasingly militant politics. He, of course, went on to become a huge force in civil rights and social justice movements in addition to his work in the U.S. and abroad.
Body and Soul drew condemnation from the Black press at the time, as well as from the censors – its attack on corruption in the Black Church especially didn’t sit well, and many of Micheaux’s themes proved controversial (its inclusion of the threat of sexual assault from a Black protagonist uncomfortably recalls Griffith). But here, in the context of a melodrama rather than a polemic, it’s a depiction of a vile person and a corrupt system, not an argument that all such people are vile or all such systems corrupt.
Another quote from Micheaux: “We want to see our lives dramatized on the screen as we are living it, the same as other people, the world over.” It’s unlikely too many people are living lives filled with the over-the-top drama of Body and Soul – or dealing with the threat posed by Evil Twins, for that matter – but there are surely recognizable aspects.
Watching it now, it’s clear Micheaux’s films allowed for a range of characterization that mainstream cinema invariably denied. His narrative structures remain fascinating, and Robeson is a star in his first film. If the “race movies” lacked the finesse and visual experiments of their contemporaries, that was because there was no money, but also because the goal was different. For Micheaux and other filmmakers at the time, simply telling these stories represented a triumph.
Next up: Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed