Handsome, dynamic stage actor Paul Robeson appeared on the screen for the first time in Body and Soul, a 1925 silent film that showcased his versatility and charisma in a dual role. A stepping stone for Robeson from the theater to the movies, it is treated as a footnote in the career of this prominent African American star and was even disavowed by Robeson himself. Yet, Body and Soul is the only film he made with an African American director, a relatively unacknowledged fact. While Robeson gives a vibrant, naturalistic performance, Body and Soul is perhaps best understood as a work by Oscar Micheaux, the most prolific and enduring director of “race” movies.
Body and Soul stars Robeson as an escaped convict, described in a title card as “a man of many aliases.” As the Right Rev. Isiaah T. Jenkins, he returns to his hometown of Tatesville, Georgia, where he captivates the parishioners with his fiery sermons. Unbeknownst to his congregation, he also frequents the local juke joint, where he drinks heavily and gambles. When Yellow-Curley Hinds (Lawrence Chenault) drifts through town looking for girls to shanghai for a burlesque show, he recognizes Jenkins as his former cellmate. Over several drinks, the pair hatch new schemes to get rich quick.
The reverend plots to rob his most loyal parishioner, a hard-working laundress named Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) of her life savings. Martha Jane is determined that her daughter Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell) will marry the reverend, but the young girl is in love with his twin brother, an inventor and conscientious man named Sylvester, also played by Robeson. Mother and daughter quarrel over Isabelle’s future, and Martha Jane’s refusal to see through the reverend yields bitter results for both her and Isabelle. When Martha Jane finally sees the truth, the narrative is propelled to a startling conclusion.
Oscar Micheaux made a major contribution to cinema operating independently of the Hollywood industry. As an outsider and black man, he had extreme difficulties securing financing and also faced racial discrimination often codified into the laws of Jim Crow-era America. These circumstances, however, are sometimes tempered with an acknowledgment that he was not a top-notch craftsman. He did not seem to have an affinity for pacing or shot variance. Too many medium shots on the screen for too long interfered with the rhythm of scenes, stalling the story. Many point to cost-cutting measures as the reason for his film’s low-production values. Micheaux made enough money for his company to survive, but he never made enough for it to be solvent, so every penny counted. He refused to do retakes even when lights blew out, walls shook, or actors forgot their direction, and these compromised shots made it into the final cut of his films. He also used title cards as a cost-efficient way to advance or condense the narrative.
Complicating any assessment of individual films is the censorship Micheaux experienced at the hands of state and local censor boards. New York censors did not accept the director’s original nine-reel version of Body and Soul, rejecting it outright on November 5, 1925, for being sacrilegious and for inciting audiences to commit crimes. Micheaux resubmitted the film a few days later, making it clear through title cards and an insert of a news article that Isiaah T. Jenkins is an escaped convict masquerading as a reverend. The censors rejected Body and Soul again, prompting Micheaux to reduce the film to five reels, cutting it nearly in half. The worst behavior of the reverend was passed on to another character and most of the scenes involving drinking and gambling were eliminated. In February 1927, he submitted a seven-reel version to the Chicago censors, who rejected it for its scandalous depiction of a Protestant minister. He recut it for those censors as well.
In addition to being an independent producer-director, Micheaux was also a do-it-yourself distributor, traveling around the country by train or car to deliver prints to theaters. He was accustomed to the peculiarities of state and local censorship and he submitted different versions of his films to censors in different regions. For this reason, no complete nine-reel version of Body and Soul exists. Now restored to eight reels, the film reveals Micheaux’s strengths as a storyteller. He deftly weaves flashbacks and dreams with present time into a nonlinear narrative that culminates in an unexpected ending.
Micheaux may not have had a gift for edge-of-your-seat suspense, but he understood the narrative power of intercutting to shape his characters. Shots of Martha Jane standing tirelessly at her ironing board contrast with Jenkins shaking down the owner of the juke joint. Both are obtaining money, but one does it through labor while the other extorts it. Elsewhere, an intimate scene of Isabelle and Sylvester holding hands is intercut with the reverend sweet-talking Martha Jane, foreshadowing that one action will have an impact on the other. Some of the most sophisticated editing occurs in a scene in which the reverend holds the money he stole from Martha Jane. Iris shots of his hands clasping the precious money are intercut with shots of Martha Jane’s hands ironing and picking cotton, implying the hard work that went into earning it and underscoring the cruelty of the theft.
Many interior sets of Body and Soul are sparsely decorated but rife with meaning. In the juke joint, pages from the Police Gazette, a tabloid that specialized in lurid murder stories, girlie photos, and sports news, decorate the wall, while the walls of Martha Jane’s modest home are covered with pictures of angels as well as portraits of President Abraham Lincoln, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and statesman Booker T. Washington. Micheaux believed in Washington’s exhortation that former slaves and their descendants should “lift themselves up” through education and enterprise rather than directly confront the injustices of racism. The prominent portrait of Washington on Martha Jane’s wall indicates Micheaux’s faith in Washington’s “bootstraps” philosophy. It’s a way of life he had followed from his early years as a homesteader on the prairie to his days as a self-published novelist to his experiences as an independent filmmaker.
Despite his preference for uplifting tales of social mobility and self-improvement, Micheaux was not afraid of controversy. In Within Our Gates, he confronted white racism by depicting lynchings and assaults on black women by white men. He also never shied from criticizing behavior he believed was undermining the progress of his race. Drinking, gambling, passing for white, violence against women, and the corruption of the church were also frequent targets in his films. In this light, Robeson’s twin roles represent two archetypes familiar to African Americans: Stagger Lee the hustler/trickster versus Booker T. Washington’s self-made man. In Micheaux’s view, they represent the two paths available to African American men and his mission was to point out the folly of the wrong path.
The black press of the time regularly took Micheaux to task for negative portrayals in his films, while Harlem Renaissance intellectuals (who embraced Robeson) dismissed his admiration for the conservative Washington. When it was released, Body and Soul received a mixed reception. The Baltimore Afro-American raved that it was “a magnificent combination of Negro brains and art,” but an angry letter to the Chicago Defender claimed it “painted us as rapists.” And, for reasons unknown, Robeson never acknowledged the film, most often naming The Emperor Jones (1933) as his first screen appearance. If Micheaux did not please his detractors, it did not stop him from producing films for the next twenty years. By continuing to explore issues and problems relevant to African Americans, he created a cinema far removed from the limited, demeaning stereotypes of Hollywood.
Presented at SFSFF 2017 with live music by DJ Spooky and Guenter Buchwald